June 30, 2009

Burning Man survives suit by burned man

from Burning Man 2005 - A Photoessay by Scott London

Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle

If you approach the flames at the Burning Man festival, you're taking your chances of getting burned.

That was the verdict Tuesday from a state appeals court in San Francisco, which refused to reinstate a festivalgoer's damage suit against the promoter of the annual celebration in the Nevada desert.

Anthony Beninati, a Los Angeles-area resident, was badly burned at the September 2005 event in Black Rock City, Nev. A college-educated real estate manager, he was making his third visit to the weeklong festival, which culminates with the incineration of a 60-foot wood sculpture.

Once the Burning Man topples, participants are invited to throw objects into the bonfire. Beninati planned to contribute a photo of a friend who was supposed to come with him but had recently died in a motorcycle accident.

He walked 7 to 10 feet into the burning embers, with flames on either side of him, threw in the photo, then took a few more steps forward, tripped and fell into the fire.

Beninati's hands were burned and one arm was permanently injured, said William Kronenberg, a lawyer for Black Rock, the San Francisco company that promotes the festival. He said paramedics flew Beninati in a company-supplied helicopter to be treated.

Beninati's suit accused Black Rock of negligently allowing people to approach the fire without safe pathways. But the First District Court of Appeal, upholding a judge's dismissal of the case, said anyone who takes part in an event with obvious dangers - downhill skiing, mountain climbing or walking up to a bonfire - knowingly risks injury.

"By continuing to walk into the fire, Beninati assumed the risk that he might trip and fall," presiding Justice Ignazio Ruvolo said in the 3-0 ruling. "The risk of falling and being burned by the flames or hot ash was inherent, obvious and necessary to the event."

Ruvolo said such suits have been barred in California since 1992, when the state Supreme Court dismissed damage claims by a participant in an office touch-football game.

Beninati's lawyers were unavailable for comment.