By Mike Larson, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Aug. 12, 2014) — NASCAR Sprint Cup star Tony Stewart could be facing some pretty serious consequences in the death of a fellow dirt track driver.
After striking and killing Kevin Ward Jr. during a sprint car race at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on Aug. 9, Mr. Stewart could face a range of penalties from criminal charges to civil lawsuits.
After the news broke that evening, thousands took to Twitter to voice their outrage, many calling for Mr. Stewart's arrest and that he be charged with an array of crimes.
Which brings us to an important question: Could Tony Stewart be charged with murder?
First it's important to note that as of now, Mr. Stewart has not only not been charged with a crime, but that Ontario County (N.Y.) sheriff Philip Povero was adamant that there “are no facts in hand that would substantiate criminal intent from any party.” The sheriff also said he spoke with Ontario County district attorney R. Michael Tantillo, who has the authority to seek a grand jury to decide if Mr. Stewart should be charged.
Even though Mr. Stewart hasn't been charged with a crime, that doesn't mean that he won't be in the future, and further, the lack of criminal intent doesn't mean he won't be charged.
Massachusetts attorney Michael McCann weighed in on Mr. Stewart's plight in a piece for Sports Illustrated (SI).
Mr. McCann said it's unlikely that a grand jury would ever seek to charge Mr. Stewart with murder in the first degree, which would require evidence that he had intended to kill Mr. Ward. However, even though he lacked intent, Mr. McCann said a grand jury could charge Mr. Stewart with second degree murder.
“(Stewart) may have engaged in conduct consistent with murder in the second degree,” he said. “Under New York law, murder in the second degree entails acting with a depraved indifference to human life and recklessly engaging in conduct that ‘creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby cause the death of another person.' New York classifies murder in the second degree as an A-1 felony, and it carries up to a life sentence and minimum of 15 years behind bars.”
Mr. McCann also said that negligent homicide is a possible charge the former Sprint Cup champ could face.
“Negligent homicide would not require that Stewart intentionally tried to kill Ward, only that he drove recklessly or carelessly. Such misconduct might include trying to scare—but not hurt—Ward. In New York, negligent homicide is a Class E felony and carries a maximum punishment of four years in prison.”
The attorney told SI that a charge of manslaughter in the first degree was plausible, but not likely. He also said that there are several criminal statutes in New York related to vehicular homicide, however “none of them appear relevant to Ward's death.”
If Mr. Stewart does avoid criminal charges, Mr. McCann said he may not be so lucky if a case goes to civil court.
The attorney said that Mr. Ward's family could sue Mr. Stewart for wrongful death, and it could be quite expensive for the Sprint Cup driver.
“A successful wrongful death lawsuit could lead to millions of dollars in damages, particularly since wrongful death damages are largely contingent on the decedent's age and loss of future earnings,” he said, noting that Mr. Ward “was only 20 years old and he seemed to have a promising and possibly lucrative future as a driver.”
Mr. McCann said that the statute of limitations for a wrongful death lawsuit in New York is two years, meaning Mr. Ward's family has until Aug. 9, 2016, to sue.
To win a wrongful death suit, Mr. Ward's family would need to prove to a jury that Mr. Stewart's actions were unreasonable and caused Mr. Ward's death. Mr. McCann said other drivers would be called to testify as experts and give their views about Mr. Stewart's conduct. He also said Mr. Stewart could be called to testify.
But Mr. McCann said Mr. Stewart might have a good defense against a wrongful death suit.
“Stewart could argue that Ward's own conduct played a crucial role in his death,” Mr. McCann said. “After all, Ward clearly accepted some degree of safety risk by leaving his race car after it spun out of control.”
According to NASCAR's website, Mr. Stewart will not race in Saturday, Aug. 16 dirt track events at Plymouth Speedway in Indiana. It cited an official statement made by the track on Aug. 11.
Mike Larson is associate motorsports editor for Autoweek magazine, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business that posted this story on its website.