By: Josh Nightingale, Villanova University School of Law Class of 2016
September 26, 2014
Tony Stewart has captivated NASCAR audiences for years, displaying a passionate and aggressive racing style that has yielded consistent success on the track. Stewart has also capitalized on his likable and blue-collar persona to realize success off the track, securing lucrative endorsement deals which have resulted in a total net worth exceeding $100 million. However, due to the event that transpired in early August, and the subsequent threat of legal hurdles, the legacy that Stewart has worked so hard to build may come crumbling down.
The incident occurred at a sprint-car race in Upstate New York, where Stewart’s car made contact with Kevin Ward Jr., causing Ward to spin out and wreck on the side of the track. When Ward exited his vehicle to seemingly confront Stewart, Stewart’s car struck Ward, causing blunt force trauma which ultimately killed Ward. The tragedy prompted Stewart to remove himself from three races, and has since issued a public apology for his actions.
Potential Criminal Charges
Because the incident involved Stewart killing another human being, there are a multitude of potential criminal convictions that may arise. The most severe crime would be first-degree murder, which would require evidence that Stewart possessed the requisite mental state by intending to kill Ward. The issue of intent could incite argument on both sides, as prosecutors could argue that due to Stewart’s expert racing abilities he could have easily avoided contact with Ward, and thus the only way he would make contact is if he was upset and intentionally did so. Stewart’s defense would likely appeal to the fast-paced and unpredictable nature of racecar driving, arguing that due to these factors it would be impossible for a driver to methodically plan in advance and make contact with a driver.
Even if it is determined that Stewart did not intentionally kill Ward, prosecution may pursue either negligent homicide or manslaughter charges. Negligent homicide would require the actor to fail to perceive a substantial risk that a reasonable person would perceive under the circumstances. This analysis would require an evaluation of a “reasonable person” in a racing context, therefore requiring interviews/observation of drivers to glean how they would handle a situation similar to what unfolded during the incident. First-degree manslaughter requires the actor to intend to cause serious harm which eventually causes death, and second-degree manslaughter requires the actor to act recklessly to cause death. The former charge would again require a showing that Stewart intentionally made contact with Ward, and the latter would require a determination that Stewart’s driving was reckless, a standard that may be difficult to prove due to the reckless nature of racecar driving in general.
Potential Civil Action
There is also the threat of a civil lawsuit that the aggrieved family may bring for wrongful death. Like the standard for negligent homicide, the family would need to prove that Stewart acted in a reckless or negligent manner that fellow below the standard of care of a reasonable person under the circumstances. The defense would likely argue that Ward contributed to the incident by exiting the vehicle and standing in the middle of the track, as well as assuming the risk of potential fatality due to the dangerous nature of the sport. If civil action were to arise and Stewart settled the matter out of the court, the damages would still be extremely high, and cause Stewart to lose a significant percentage of his career winnings. Due to the public nature of a lawsuit, various stakeholders in the matter may push him to settle, as sponsors may fear negative brand messages, and NASCAR would not want any negative publicity.
Even though Stewart has now publicly apologized and has resumed racing, the aftermath of this incident is far from being over. The criminal investigation is still taking place, and even if Stewart does not face criminal charges, the Ward family has two years to decide if they want to pursue a civil suit. The consequences are innumerable for Tony Stewart, thus it is safe to assume his career may never be the same.