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Legal Look: Ward dies after hit by Tony Stewart's car

Eric Macramalla, Sports Legal Analyst
8/11/2014 10:09:34 AM
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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.

Criminal Charges

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.

Civil Lawsuit

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.

Tony Stewart (Photo: The Canadian Press)


(Photo: The Canadian Press)

Fact Sheet

Saturday's Race

Sprintactular #2 at Canandaigua (Can-nun-DAY-gwa) Motorsports Park (Empire Super Sprints) race

Notable Recent Tony Stewart Events on Dirt

- July 2013 - Made contact with another car that led to 15-car accident at Canandaigua Motorsports Park that left 19-year-old driver Alysha Ruggles with a compression fracture in her back.

- August 2013 - Broke his leg in a sprint car race at Southern Iowa Speedway.

- July 2014 - Won 360 Sprints on dirt winged sprint car race in Auburn, Mich. This victory is Stewart's only racing win since suffering broken leg.

- Saturday – Driver Kevin Ward Jr. killed after being struck by Stewart's car while walking on the track.

About Canandaigua Motorsports Park

- Half-mile race track on Ontario County Fairgrounds.

- Opened on Memorial Day in 1953.

- Hosts a variety of short-track races on Saturday nights during the summer months.

Race Surfaces

- Run on clay or dirt oval courses.

- Provides a challenge in controlling a car that is "sliding out" from underneath the driver, or as Stewart calls it, "a controlled drift."

- Stewart has said in the past that that his experience driving dirt cars has helped him in NSCS races: "The hotter the tracks get, eventually the cars are going to lose grip," Stewart said. "I think it plays into the hands of guys that are used to cars sliding around a lot more."

- Stewart owns Eldora Speedway, a half-mile dirt racing course in Rossburg, Ohio. The last two years the Nascar Camping World Truck Series has run a race there, making it the only dirt track to host a race for any of the three major Nascar series in this time.

Types of Cars

Dirt race car drivers typically have three different types of cars:

Modified – This open-wheel race car "utilizes a GM metric frame with 4-link suspension that helps the car grip the track and put the power down."

Late Model – This closed-wheel car has a "has a fully-tubular, race-designed chassis that puts the car's suspension to the test."

Sprint Car – This powerful car's "lightweight frame gives the Sprint Car an impressive power-to-weight ratio, while its massive top wing and huge right rear tire push the limits of what a dirt track can handle."

Source: ESPN Stats & Information

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