How Tony Stewart Could Avoid Penalty & Keep Racing

Photo: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The news made headlines across the country and shocked hardcore fans as well as those unfamiliar with NASCAR races. Over the weekend, famed driver Tony Stewart was involved in an accident that left a 20-year-old competitor, Kevin Ward Jr., dead. The news of the crash, and footage from those watching the race, cast doubt on whether the accident was indeed accidental. Local law enforcement authorities have been under the media glare for the past few days and are said to still be deliberating whether criminal charges will be filed against Mr. Stewart or, if instead, he will be allowed to continue racing free and clear. To find out more about the accident and what the possible consequences are, keep reading.

What happened?

According to the Washington Post, the incident occurred at a dirt track in Ontario County, New York, where Stewart had agreed to participate in a race. At some point in the competition, a caution flag was thrown after Stewart’s car collided with Ward’s, pushing Ward’s vehicle into a wall and leading to a flat tire. Ward emerged from his vehicle visibly angry, waiving his arms and shouting at Stewart. On the next pass around, Stewart, who witnesses say was traveling between 30 and 40 miles per hour, appeared to hit his throttle, a maneuver that can send a car spinning sideways. Stewart’s vehicle drifted to the side and ran over Ward, causing catastrophic injuries that resulted in the young man’s death.

So far, police officers and officials with the Ontario County district attorney’s office say that no charges have been filed against Stewart. However, authorities have been clear that an investigation into the accident is ongoing. Eyewitnesses have been interviewed, photographs and video recordings have been reviewed and the track and the lighting in the location of the accident have been examined. For now, Stewart is free to go about his business, whether that freedom will continue remains to be seen.

How Tony Stewart Could Be Charged Criminally

After listening to eyewitness reports and watching amateur video of the accident, some have decided that Stewart acted intentionally when he hit his throttle, a decision that led directly to Ward’s death. Those who are advocating that Stewart face criminal charges point out that the man has previously been accused of playing dirty and exhibiting an explosive temper. So, under what circumstances might Stewart face criminal charges?

First-Degree Murder

To charge Stewart with first-degree murder, prosecutors would need to prove that Stewart had the intention to kill Ward. Most experts agree this will be a very high hurdle for prosecutors to clear given the facts of the case currently made public. So far, there’s no indication that Stewart actually intended to kill Ward or anyone else.

Other crimes

Though there may not be sufficient evidence to prove that Stewart intentionally ran over ward with a desire to kill, another option to pursue charges against Stewart would require examining his conduct for signs of recklessness. For example, if Stewart purposely hit his throttle, perhaps to scare or throw dirt onto Ward, then that decision could be enough to justify a lesser homicide charge such as second-degree murder or manslaughter.

In New York, murder in the second degree takes place when a person acts with depraved indifference to human life and recklessly engages in conduct that causes the death of another person. It’s possible that if prosecutors could show that Stewart acted recklessly that night they could get these lesser criminal charges to stick.

How Tony Stewart Could Avoid Charges and Race Freely

Supporters of Stewart claim that the accident was likely just that: an accident. They say that Ward never should have been walking around on the darkened dirt track and that even the most experienced drivers could not have anticipated the sudden shift in Stewart’s car. Additionally, no clear evidence has shown that Stewart had the necessary criminal intent to justify serious criminal charges. Even more importantly according to most experts is the issue of assumption of risk, something that can factor into criminal as well as civil cases.

What About A Civil Suit?

Let’s face it; all sports (and especially auto racing) can be dangerous. Anyone who walks onto a football field or a gets behind the wheel at a NASCAR event knows this. The law also recognizes the danger of these sports and the fact that athletes knowingly take on the risk of injury by choosing to participate in them. This idea of assumption of risk is why even the nastiest collisions on a football field do not result in criminal assault charges against the responsible players.

Assumption of risk

If Ward’s family were to file a civil suit against Stewart seeking financial compensation for the loss of their son, the issue of assumption of risk will likely come into play. To bring a civil claim, the family would argue that Stewart drove in an unreasonable manner, which breached the duty of care owed to Ward and others on the track. The argument is that Stewart behaved negligently and this negligence led directly to Ward’s death. As a result, Ward’s family would argue they ought to be able to collect money from the person responsible for the deadly breach of duty.

Experts say that chances are Ward signed a waiver prior to the race, accepting the risk of injury or death and promising not to sue should something bad occur. If so, this amounts to an express assumption of risk. Even if no such waiver were signed, Stewart’s lawyers could argue that there was an implied assumption of risk, exhibited by Ward’s conduct rather than his words, which could also result in the elimination of liability.

Comparative fault

Finally, even if Ward’s family were able to successfully bring a civil case, Stewart would have one more avenue to lower his potential liability: argue that Ward was at least somewhat responsible for the accident and that his recovery should thus be limited.  This argument is based on the idea of comparative fault, which says that if a plaintiff’s own negligence was a contributing factor in an accident his or her financial recovery should be diminished. Stewart could argue that by getting out of the car and walking out onto the track, Ward placed himself in serious dangerous and any resulting damage award should be drastically reduced as a result.

The reality is that, given the intense media attention surrounding the accident, the district attorney’s office will be carefully scrutinizing all the evidence in the case for a good while longer. Authorities will want to be absolutely sure before pressing charges, or not, and Stewart may have to wait weeks before he hears a final resolution to the matter.

Source:No criminal charges pending against Tony Stewart ‘at this time,’ sheriff says,” by Cindy Boren, published at WashingtonPost.com

Source:Stewart faces several possible legal consequences after fatal accident,” by Michael McCann, published at SI.com

Photo: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports