The family of Kevin Ward, Jr. surprised virtually no one today with the filing of a wrongful death lawsuit in Lewis County (NY) Supreme Court against former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart.
The suit concerns the August 9, 2014 death of Ward, a 20-year old Sprint Car driver who died after being struck by the right-rear tire of Stewart’s Sprint Car at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in upstate New York. Ward and Stewart touched wheels on the previous lap, causing Ward’s car impact a retaining wall. Ward climbed from his disabled vehicle and walked across the racing surface – presumably to confront Stewart – before being struck.
The lawsuit filed by his family today seeks unspecified monetary damages for wrongful death, reckless conduct, gross negligence and suffering allegedly experienced by Ward on the night of his death. It accuses Stewart of acting “with disregard for Ward's life and safety by driving his vehicle in a manner that would terrorize Ward and thereafter strike, severely injure and kill Ward."
In short, it accuses Stewart of attempting to frighten – and possibly even kill -- Kevin Ward.
Last September, a Grand Jury in Ontario County, NY, declined to charge Stewart with a crime, citing insufficient evidence of criminal misconduct or negligence. The county’s District Attorney went a step further, saying a review of the evidence showed "no aberrational driving" by Stewart. That decision will have no impact on the civil suit filed today, however, since the burden of proof for civil cases in considerably lower.
If this case goes to trial, the jury will be tasked with determining a percentage of liability for both Stewart and Ward. Even if they determine that Stewart did not intentionally or carelessly strike Ward, then can still assess him a percentage of the blame. Often, cases of this type involving a high-profile personality such as Stewart do not go to trial. Insurance companies and attorneys counsel clients to cut their losses, avoid the harsh media spotlight of trial and settle the case without ever stepping into a courtroom.
The end result of this lawsuit remains to be seen. Not knowing anything more than what is discernable by watching a couple of grainy YouTube videos, it is impossible for me (or you, for that matter) to determine the rights and wrongs of this case. I will never know what Tony Stewart was thinking on that fateful night in New York. I’m not even sure what Kevin Ward, Jr. was thinking, though “anger” did seem to be part of his thought process.
The Ward family is entitled to its anger. They buried a son, and the pain associated with that act is unfathomable. Wendi Ward, aunt of Kevin Ward Jr., sent an open letter to USA Today in the days following the incident, saying, "Our family does not need others to determine what we feel or know about Kevin. He is our blood, our friend, our champion. Always has been and always will be.”
Commenting on a post-mortem toxicology report that showed marijuana in Ward’s system at the time of his death, she asked, “Why was the toxicology report even an issue? Seems to me the wrong man was on trial. Tell me why Tony Stewart was not taken in for testing, why his car wasn't impounded. …Tell me how a NASCAR star totally forgot what caution means.
“…People react to certain situations because of anger,” she wrote. I've seen it in NASCAR, sports functions and even on our own roads. And yes, these people have to pay for their actions.”
Clearly, the Ward family remains determined to hold Stewart responsible for the tragic death of their loved one. That is their right, and their anger is understandable, even one year after the fact. What is less understandable, however, is the timing of the case.
The Ward family knows that NASCAR is back in town this weekend, racing at Watkins Glen International. They are well aware that filing suit today – of all days -- will kick the amount of media attention they receive into instantaneous overdrive, making the death of their son -- and the allegations surrounding it -- the number-one story in motorsports.
They also know that filing suit today will place Stewart at the center of an unwelcome media maelstrom, ruining what little focus he might somehow have been able to muster on the one-year anniversary of the most horrifying night of his life.
Unless the wheels of justice coincidentally spun at the exact speed necessary for this suit to become public just as NASCAR returned to The Glen, one must assume that the timing was intentional.
Almost certainly, the Ward family and their attorney timed today’s filing to garner maximum media exposure, as well as to maximize the amount of pain inflicted on Stewart.
That is disappointing, to say the least.