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August 12, 2014

NASCAR’s Tony Stewart Hits and Kills 20-year-old in Dirt Track Race (with video and legal analysis)

by John Phillips

INCIDENT: On August 9, 2014, there was a serious crash at Canandaigua, New York Motorsports Park, a dirt track. Tony Stewart struck fellow driver, 20-year-old Kevin Ward, Jr.  His website (kevinwardracing.com) indicates he is 17, but has not been updated in some time.

He was in his fifth season with the Empire Super Sprints circuit. Stewart is a very successful 43-year-old NASCAR driver and was supposed to participate in a race at Watkins Glen on ESPN the following day at noon.

Following the incident, Ward was rushed to the hospital.  Hospital spokeswoman said Ward was hospitalized with “life-threatening injuries” following the “serious accident.”  Police were speaking to his parents as of early Sunday morning.  They later confirmed Ward died.

After Saturday night’s incident, racing was canceled for the rest of the night, as police took over to investigate.  The police issued this press release:

press release

The Sheriff’s full press conference is below.  He plans to meet with the State Attorney about charges, as facts develop.  It is a complicated case based on “recklessness,” as we will discuss.  Take a look.  It has not been edited in any way.

WITNESSES:

Witnesses say, “It happened in Turn 2,” said the 27-year-old Dulski. “The prior lap, Tony had gotten into him – just spun him, nothing big, just spun him around. The caution came out. He hopped out of the car – the driver of the 13 … he hopped out to go and yell and point a finger at Tony, typical thing.

“Tony came around … the back end slid out, and he definitely caught him – I couldn’t tell if it was with the front or the back of the car. … The body made contact with the car and went sliding across the track a long distance, at least 50 feet. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Graves, 16, of Bolivar, N.Y., said “Tony and Kevin were battling. … I believe they got together on the front-stretch, Kevin hit the wall and his tire went down. So he spun between (turns) 1 and 2. He got out of the car after the caution was thrown and began to walk down the track, pointing right at the 14, throwing his hands all around. The last thing I seen Kevin do was put his finger to his helmet.”

Graves said he saw Stewart’s car swerve and the right rear tire hit Ward. Ward was caught up under the tire and then was launched about 50 yards. Ward hit the ground and didn’t move, according to Graves.

And another:

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And a telephone interview can be heard here –

TONY STEWART:

rpm_g_stewartt_300In July of last year, Stewart was involved in another incident at the Canandaigua track. He sparked a multi-car wreck that sent two drivers to the hospital with injuries. Stewart has had run-ins with what some call “temper-related issues” throughout his career.  He was fined and put on probation by both NASCAR and Home Depot for an incident with a photographer after the Brickyard 400 and also investigated by the Sullivan County, TN sheriff’s department for allegedly shoving a woman after the race in Bristol.  A safety worker from New Hampshire is accusing Tony of punching him after Stewart wrecked out of the July race. He has frequently battled other drivers and those on his team.  When you have Stewart’s status, people also line up to make claims against you.  However, he was the veteran here and knew there was a wreck, as he rounded the track on caution.

2014-13KEVIN WARD, JR.:

As this article discusses, Kevin was having a little rough luck in his last few races- http://www.dirttrackdigest.com/kevin-ward-jr-cant-seem-to-catch-a-break-returns-to-ess-this-weekend-with-events-at-ohsweken-speedway-and-canandaigua-motorsports-park. There were no known prior incidents such as this.  More photos of him are available on is facebook page- https://www.facebook.com/kevin.j.ward.3.  He was a young man, full of life, who’s passion and relative inexperience may have gotten the better of him.  The impact of the initial wreck could have also impaired his judgment.

LEGAL ANALYSIS:

This was a tragedy, but was it criminal?

The “vehicular manslaughter” codes of New York generally apply to vehicles on the roadway.  This was obviously a race and contest, thus we do not believe those fully apply. Manslaughter in the second degree in New York states: “A person is guilty of manslaughter in the second degree when… He recklessly causes the death of another person.” Certainly, other criminal codes could apply, but this is the strongest issue.

As criminal defense lawyers look at this, the question will come as to what Tony Stewart saw and intended and what forensically can be determined by this video evidence and other accounts and evidence. It is significant that the lap was UNDER CAUTION because of the initial wreck which caused Ward to hit the wall.  If Stewart, in fact, intended to throw mud, scare or intimidate Ward, or he was determined to be exceedingly reckless, Tony Stewart could likely be charged with manslaughter.  If there was an intent to cause harm, charges could be more severe.  Mitigating factors would be the fact that Ward was wearing all black on a known dark corner of the track and exited his car.  Many tracks make drivers sign waivers and otherwise enforce the very limited circumstances an on-track vehicle should be exited.  Stewart’s history of aggression may also work against him, but the comparative liability of Ward exiting his vehicle is certainly a factor.

Civil liability is separate and may also follow for wrongful death where death was “caused by the wrongful conduct of the defendant.”

At this time, not enough facts are known.  Police are likely to do a full investigation before making issuing too much of a statement or making any decision on criminal charges or arrest.

Thoughts and prayers to all involved.  This is for informational purposes only.

UPDATES:

Reports said Stewart “was visibly shaken by this accident,” yet he may be allowed to race today.  That is gross negligence.  NASCAR should not allow it.  His brain cannot be emotionally, mentally, psychologically and he may not be physically there such that he should be allowed to put other drivers at risk.  Like it or not, he is under investigation for his actions.  It is a slap in the face to Ward’s family who are devastated today for Stewart to be allowed to resume a normal day.  I’d argue it shows callous indifference to the life he took. It was just determined that Regan Smith will sub for Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen.

Tony Stewart just issued a statement:

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