The manufacturer of the Fontana Safety-Rail, common on horse-racing tracks around the United States, is suing its supplier of plastic components.
Fontana Products Inc. of Alta Loma, Calif., alleges Spartech Plastics supplied a subpar, ``generic'' thermoplastic elastomer, while claiming it was a grade of Santoprene from Advanced Elastomer Systems of Akron, Ohio.
The suit, filed in September 1997 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, asks for damages in excess of $5 million, Fontana lawyer Theresa Barta said in an Aug. 28 telephone interview. The court has set Dec. 8 as the trial date.
Bradley Buechler, president and chief executive officer of Spartech Plastics' parent, Spartech Corp. of Clayton, Mo., declined to comment on the case.
Fontana's documents indicate Spartech's possible defense will include the claim that Fontana authorized the change in material, which Fontana denies.
Fontana uses Santoprene as a soft, weatherable surface coextruded over a polypropylene core for its safety rails. Those rails, which are mounted on top of curved, aluminum poles, are designed to ``bounce'' jockeys and their steeds away from danger during crashes at the track.
The rails have become an industry standard, appearing on about 70 of North America's 100 or so professional horse-racing tracks, the company's founder and president, Rich Fontana, said in an Aug. 21 telephone interview.
``We're dealing with human lives here,'' he said. ``We're not dealing with a toy.'' Fontana added that the unique properties of his rails save racers from fatal injuries.
Jockeys apparently agree with Fontana. A number of them have filed lawsuits against track owners for not using a Fontana Safety-Rail.
Fontana said he settled on Santoprene after several years of using products that did not always hold up well. Fontana said he specifically asked his suppliers only to use Santoprene for the covering material.
When Spartech became Fontana's supplier in 1992, it did just that, but only for a while, Fontana claims in his legal complaint against Spartech.
Fontana Products subcontracts the thermoforming portion of its manufacturing process. When Fontana's thermoformer reported problems with forming the Santoprene in 1996, a Spartech representative's first response was to say workers at the plant were sweating on the mold, Fontana claims in court documents.
Fontana said he also started receiving complaints about the performance of his safety rails in cold weather.