August 11, 2014
An incident Saturday night shook the motorsports world when three-time Nascar Sprint Cup series champion Tony Stewart killed 20-year-old Kevin Ward, Jr. on-track after hitting him with his car.
The fatal crash occurred at Canandaigua Motorsports Park of Canandaigua, New York. Video footage from fans shows his right rear tire strike Ward, who is sucked under the car and slumps to the ground motionless, later being pronounced dead.
As Stewart’s car approached Ward and just prior to contact, Stewart blips the throttle of his 900-horsepower sprint car, causing the rear end to come out slightly in a move that was either aggressive or an honest attempt to avoid the man. Common sense tells us that Ward, who was fruitlessly trying to stop Stewart due to a collision a lap prior, placed himself outside the path of contact with Stewart. Therefore it would seem that if not for the throttle maneuver, no collision would have occurred.
Stewart is known for his hot temper and somewhat reckless behavior on-track. Following altercations with another competitor, Stewart has gone as far as to use the retrospectively unfortunate wording “I learned my lesson there; I’m going to run over him every chance I’ve got from not until the end of the year. Every chance I’ve got”. Of course the assumption is that this was meant not literally but rather when it came down to racing tactics and etiquette on-course.
So why then, given Stewart’s history of threats, his aggression on the track, and rivalry with Kevin Ward, Jr. is the Sheriff in charge of investigating the crash stating “I want to make it very clear… at this very moment, there are no facts at hand that would substantiate or support a criminal charge or indicate criminal intent on the part of any individual”.
From the legal perspective, this is somewhat of a shocking statement. Criminal prosecution consists of two things: intent and liability. If you killed someone but didn’t mean to, it’s involuntary manslaughter. If you killed someone and meant to, it is murder. If you didn’t kill someone and meant to, that is attempted murder. So at the least, shouldn’t this be involuntary manslaughter?
Speculation and accusation has erupted both from inside and out of motorsports, with comments in favor of and against Stewart. Tyler Graves is another Sprint racer and friend of Ward. He was quoted as saying:
“I know Tony could see him. I know how you can see out of these cars. When Tony got close to him, he hit the throttle. When you hit a throttle on a sprint car, the car gets sideways. [Stewart] needs to be put in prison for life.”
A more rational perspective came from Bob McManaman, who says “Stewart is so confident and so cocky – and yes, so competitive – that I think he simply was trying to scare Kevin Ward Jr…I think he wanted to send a message of his own that, ‘Hey, who are you trying to challenge me on my race track?’ So he opened up the throttle, which appears to be the case in the video, and ran a little too close to Ward. But it’s that split-second shot of adrenaline that made the difference.”
Since the incident Stewart has offered his condolences to those affected by the tragedy, saying “there aren’t words to describe the sadness I feel about the accident that took the life of Kevin Ward Jr.”
So why is it likely that Stewart will never face criminal charges? Firstly, we all can expect that in closed competition the law doesn’t work the same as in the normal world. If someone is injured, we can say that it was a reasonable expectation that that person would be put into harm’s way by participating.
Additionally, it is not the fault of Stewart that Ward climbed out of his vehicle and began pacing the track somewhat insanely. This isn’t entirely uncommon, but each driver who does it puts themselves at risk, much as someone pacing a freeway would be endangering themselves, and in that situation as well if someone were to hit them you can’t blame the driver behind the wheel.
Reflecting on competitive sports in our society can be a strange exercise. From the brutal coliseums of Rome to the UFC matches of today, and in this situation what was supposed to be a straight forward hands-to-yourself race.
There is something about the human condition that loves confrontation, and in a culture of social order, competition has become a primary outlet, a moratorium if you will from the laws that dictate our everyday actions, a regression into something on the one hand primal but on the other entirely the product of our modern world.
So why shouldn’t (and probably won’t) Tony Stewart be charged with murder? As they say, that’s just racing. Tragic? Yes. Avoidable? Definitely. Was it Stewart’s fault? Possibly. Should it put him in prison? Not unless you’re willing to do the same to competitive fighters.
Like Stewart, Ward knew the risk when he (literally) stepped onto the track. Sometimes risk turns to injury, or in this case death. It’s certainly a dark time for motorsports, and maybe the end is near for Stewart’s career…but otherwise this situation was the very unfortunate outcome which occurred from a sport which has a very regular and real potential to create this same result.
Fortunately it tends to be somewhat rare, but when you have big chunks of metal weaving between each other on a track made of dirt at over 100 mph, it’s understood that that environment is nothing more than controlled chaos. Remove a bit of that control, and you better be standing behind the barriers because anything can happen.
John Rosenbaum is an Orange County attorney known for his impeccable track-record with personal injury and workers compensation cases. During his 35+ years practicing law, he has been successful in over 99.8% of his cases.