After a ruling by a judge in the state of New York on Tuesday the family of Sprint Car driver Kevin Ward, Jr. may proceed with their civil suit against former NASCAR champion Tony Stewart. The suit claims that Stewart was negligent and reckless during a race held at the Canandaigua Motorsports Park dirt track on August 9, 2014.
Stewart is also co-owner of NASCAR’s Stewart-Haas Racing and the owner of the famed Eldora Speedway dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.
According to the suit by the Ward family, Stewart’s actions led to the death of Kevin Ward, Jr. when the 20-year-old driver walked onto the track during a caution period following an accident to show his displeasure with Stewart. The NASCAR star claims that he did not see Ward until the last moment and that he was not even aware that it was in fact Ward who was on the track. Stewart admits that he gunned the engine when he saw a person on the track in order to swerve away from that person. However, Ward was struck by the passing car and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
Stewart was eventually cleared of any criminal wrongdoing when a New York grand jury refused to indict him. However, civil suits do not require a criminal indictment to proceed.
The part of the case that could impact all of dirt racing, and many other forms of racing for that matter, is that the U.S. district judge hearing the case on Tuesday denied the attempt by Stewart and his attorney to have the case thrown out of court due to the fact that Ward had signed a waiver meant to prohibit such legal claims. Stewart also stated in his legal statement that race car drivers know the inherent risk of walking onto a race track during a caution period.
New York law states that any liability waiver “between the owner or operator of any pool, gymnasium, place of amusement or recreation, or similar establishment and the user of such facilities, pursuant to which such owner or operator receives a fee or other compensation for the use of such facilities … shall be deemed to be void as against public policy and wholly unenforceable.”
In his ruling, Judge David Hurd determined that the race was “recreational,” rather than professional, in nature.
It is important to keep in mind that this case is taking place in the state of New York and that a ruling there may not be applied in other states. However, legal opinions offered by one judge are often taken into consideration by other judges as such rulings do establish a degree of legal precedent.
Stewart and his legal team have been seeking to negotiate a settlement with the Ward family rather than have the case go to court. The judge’s Tuesday ruling could impact the direction of those settlement talks or could even increase the chances that the case will go to court and have its outcome determined by a jury.
All race tracks should be watching the outcome of this case. Discussions held in pre-race drivers meetings, the legal standing of waivers, and even insurance premiums paid by racing facilities could all be impacted as this case plays out.
The column was written based off of a piece written by Bob Pockrass for ESPN.com.