This past Saturday at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York, 20 year old Kevin Ward Jr. was killed after he was struck on the track by NASCAR star Tony Stewart's car.
During the race, Ward's car was spun out by Stewart. Ward then unbuckled, climbed out of his car and walked onto the track to express his displeasure to Stewart. At that point, he was struck by Stewart's car and killed.
"I want to make it very clear: there are no criminal charges pending at this time" said Ontario County Sheriff Philp Povero after the incident.
While that may be the case, this is far from over. Stewart faces the spectre of criminal charges and civil liability. For Stewart, this is going to be a long road.
On the criminal side, expect the District Attorney to take a very close look to determine whether Stewart committed a crime. The most likely charge that would be considered is second degree manslaughter. Also called involuntary manslaughter, this occurs when a person "recklessly" causes the death of another person. Reckless acts are generally deemed less serious or blameworthy than intentional acts.
Second degree manslaughter can be distinguished from first degree manslaughter. With respect to the latter charge, a defendant may not have intended to kill the victim, but did intend to seriously physically injure the person and death resulted.
At this point, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether criminal charges are appropriate. The evidence will be reviewed, including the video of the incident, witness statements and any data available from Stewart's car.
Some witnesses have said that Stewart hit his throttle as he approached Ward. When you hit the throttle, the back end of the car kicks out. One theory is that Stewart may have hit the throttle to scare Ward.
If Stewart intended to intimidate Ward by kicking his car out, or was otherwise reckless, he could be charged with manslaughter.
Should it be determined that Stewart intended to kill Ward, then the charge could be elevated to murder or manslaughter in the first degree. However, intent in this case would be very difficult to ascertain, and accordingly, these charges seem unlikely to materialize.
So the key question for the DA is this: did Stewart intentionally hit his throttle to merely put a scare in Ward? If so, Stewart is suddenly responsible for the death of Ward in the likely form of Man 2.
Apart from criminal charges, Stewart may also face a wrongful death civil lawsuit (for money) from Ward's family. If a person is killed as a result of the negligence or misconduct of another person, the surviving members may sue for "wrongful death".
While it is early and we don't have all the information, it would not be a surprise to see Ward's family sue Stewart. It is not unusual for families to seek a certain level of accountability by way of a civil suit. The family may also argue that Stewart has a reputation for having a bad temper, and this incident is consistent with his temperament.
Stewart would argue that Ward should not have exited his vehicle. By doing so, he put himself in harm's way. As well, Stewart may say that he tried to avoid Ward rather than scare him. Finally, Ward was wearing black on a part of the track that was not well lit. As a result, Stewart may say he didn't see Ward until it was too late.
The investigation is still at an early stage and it is premature to declare that Stewart is responsible for Ward's death. We should allow the investigation to run its course, at which point a clearer determination can be made as to liability.