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Judge: Lawsuit against Michael Waltrip Racing can proceed

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Michael Waltrip speaks to media members assembled during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour on Tuesday, January 27, 2015.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Michael Waltrip speaks to media members assembled during the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour on Tuesday, January 27, 2015. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A Mecklenburg County judge has ruled against Michael Waltrip Racing’s motions to dismiss claims in a lawsuit by a former front tire changer.

Brandon Hopkins sued the now-defunct Cornelius-based motorsports team last year. He claims he was fired after taking a leave for surgery from a shoulder injury he suffered when he was hit by a car during a NASCAR race.

Hopkins helped Michael Waltrip Racing to its first Mechanix Wear Pit Crew of the Year Award in 2012.

He contends team officials “blacklisted” him after his surgery by falsely accusing him of stealing a pit gun used to remove lug nuts.

As a result, he lost an unpaid internship with another NASCAR Sprint Cup team and paid work with a NASCAR Truck Series team, Hopkins says in the lawsuit filed by Charlotte lawyer Joshua Van Kampen in Mecklenburg County Superior Court.

Hopkins sued for damages, citing breach of contract, defamation, intentional interference with a contract and violating the N.C. blacklisting statute and federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act.

“It’s not about the money,” Hopkins told the Observer after filing the lawsuit. “It’s about doing what’s right and what’s wrong and making sure this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”

The team’s lawyers wanted a judge to dismiss claims Hopkins sought under the two federal acts, but Judge Louis Bledsoe allowed the case to proceed.

Bledsoe concluded that Hopkins can continue with such claims as MWR’s “alleged retaliation” against him and MWR’s failure to provide him “a reasonable accommodation” for his condition, according to the ruling.

Had Bledsoe dismissed the claims, Hopkins would have been left solely with N.C. state law claims, Van Kampen said Friday.

“MWR may have gone out of business, but we will continue to take the fight to the company, such as it is, to the very end,” Van Kampen said.

Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl, who is defending Michael Waltrip Racing, could not be reached Saturday. Diehl previously declined to discuss the lawsuit. We don’t try our case in the newspaper,” he said.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

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