How the Tony Stewart Wrongful Death Case Would Turn Out in Nevada

I am sure that most of you have heard, at least in passing, about the horrible accident that took the life of race car driver Kevin Ward Jr.. Because the case has gotten so much play1)for better or worse in the press, I thought it might be an opportune time to apply the known facts of the incident to Nevada law so our readers have a better idea how a wrongful death tort works in practice.

 

What Happened

You should watch the cellphone video yourself and make your own determination of the facts (Warning: Graphic.). Ward died shortly after being hit by a race car that was driven by Tony Stewart.

On August 9, 2014, Ward and Stewart were racing winged sprint cars, which are the unusual looking buggy-like vehicles that have oversized spoilers on their roof and hood.2)Source They were racing on a short dirt oval track in the town of Canandaguia, New York.

Ward’s car crashed while the cars of Stewart and Ward were next to each other, possibly as a result of a relatively minor collision between the two. Ward exited his car and walked toward the middle of the dirt racetrack while the other race cars were still driving. Since the racetrack is a short oval, it only took about 22 seconds for Stewart’s car to come back around to where Ward was walking and pointing in the general direction of Stewart’s approaching car. It was then that Stewart’s car hit Ward and knocked him further down to the ground.

 

 

A Little Background on the Cars/Track/Drivers

The race involved 360 Winged Sprints; “360” refers to the cubic inch iron block size of the engine, which produce between 700 and 800 horsepower; the vehicles are light, typically less than 1,475 pounds, which results in a very powerful and light vehicle. For comparison sake, the top selling small car for 2014 was the Toyota Corolla, the mid-range LE model of which weighs 2,855 pounds and has 132 horsepower.

The oval track is 1/2 mile in total length, which just about double the length of a high school 400 meter track. The track appears slightly sloped with the outside being a little higher than the inside of the track; it is otherwise flat. In the middle of the oval, there are very few obstructions preventing spectators or racers to see the opposite side of the track.

It was nighttime and moderately well lit. It did not appear as well lit as a baseball park at a good community field, but lighting was sufficient to show many details from the stands on the opposite side of the oval.

Tony Stewart was 43 years old at the time; he was and is well known and a very experienced and successful NASCAR and sprint car racer. Kevin Ward Jr. was a local 20 year old sprint car racer who graduated from a South Lewis Central high school. His high school is located in the small town of Turin, New York, which is just a two and a half hour drive away from Canandaigua.

 

The Scope of Our Discussion

This is purely a hypothetical because it is an analysis of the claims of Ward’s estate and his decedents if the accident occurred in Nevada.

There are persons who may claim that Tony Stewart may have intended to harm Ward, but that issue will not likely prevail and will not be addressed here. The issues addressed here are whether Stewart’s actions were negligent, regardless of whether he intended on intimidating Ward or not. Next, even if it can be proved that Stewart was negligent, Ward was almost certainly negligent by placing himself in harm’s way through his actions of walking towards moving race cars during an active race. What would Ward’s negligence be and how would it affect the claim of his estate and heirs?

 

The Relevant Wrongful Death Law

In order to succeed on a wrongful death action in Nevada, a party must prove that “the death of any person, whether or not a minor, is caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another.”3)NRS 41.085. A legal cause is a “cause which is a substantial factor in bringing about the injury.”4)Nevada Jury Instructions – Civil 2011 Edition Inst. 4.16; Cnty. of Clark, ex rel. Univ. Med. Ctr. v. Upchurch, 114 Nev. 749, 759, 961 P.2d 754, 760 (1998).

Since wrongful death is a negligence claim, the family of the person who passed away must show that the “tortfeasor,” the person alleged to have caused the death, was actually negligent. The Nevada Supreme Court held that in order to demonstrate negligence the plaintiff must show:

(1) there was a duty owed;

(2) there was a breach;

(3) causation; and

(4) damages were suffered.5)Scialabba v. Barndise Const. Co., 921 P.2d 928, 930 (Nev. 1996) (citing Perez v. Las Vegas Med. Ctr., 107 Nev. 1, 4, 805 P.2d 589, 590 [1991]

 

The determination of duty is adjudicated by the court6)Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entm’t, LLC, 124 Nev. 213, 220, 180 P.3d 1172, 1177 (2008). The remaining issues of negligence are fact intensive for a jury to decide.7)Doud v. Las Vegas Hilton Corp., 109 Nev. 1096, 1106, 864 P.2d 796, 802 (1993).

In Nevada, a defendant may assert a defense that the injured or deceased plaintiff was also negligent and the claim should be reduced by that percentage of negligence or eliminated.8)(NRS 41.1410). Nevada is a state that prevents recovery completely only if the plaintiff was more than 50% at fault9)Id.. If the plaintiff is 50% or less responsible for the incident, s/he may recover damages reduced by his or her share of the negligence.

 

How Does Nevada Law Apply to This Accident?

At this point, there are a number of facts that are not known that may be found through discovery in litigation. Aside from background information about the track and race, the only real piece of evidence available for analysis is the 52 second video taken by a cell phone of a witness. Other videos may exist as taken by other witnesses, Canandaigua Motorsports Park, or the organizers of the race, which has videos of other races on their website. We do not have the testimony of any depositions from Stewart, other racers, and other witnesses. They may be able to provide some important facts that we do not have. The opinions and testimony of experts will likely be required to explain to a judge or jury safe practices of drivers, track operators, and race organizers.

The rules of the Canandaigua Motosports Park and Empire Super Sprints also provide useful standards for determining the duties of the operators, organizers, and drivers. Under Section B.12 of Empire Super Sprints 2014 Rules of Conduct and Procedure, it states:

If there is an accident, the field will be restarted with the car or cars causing the restart, plus any stopped car, going to the rear of the field.

 

The rules leave much to be desired, for example, they do not define accident, restart, and or the procedures of a restart. The rules make multiple references to colors of flags indicating actions, but do not state what flag is flown after an accident to indicate a restart. They also do not state what actions are to be taken by the drivers upon notice of a restart. If the flag person communicated to the drivers that there was an accident, or just that there is to be a restart, then the drivers have no reason to be racing, driving quickly, or passing one another because rule B.12 also states that, except for those involved in the accident, the order of racers will be preserved for the restart. In the beginning of the video, there is a person on a raised stand near the spectator bleachers who has multiple colored at his feet. If the race organizer or director did not properly train its employees on how to respond to an accident, they may be subject to liability as well.

It makes sense that a restart was communicated to the drivers after the accident because in the first 13 seconds of the video, which was before and immediately after the crash, many of the racers traveled on the far outside of the track on the straight portion after the turn (one car passed just after the collision and while Ward’s car was still moving). After the first 13 seconds, approximately 18 cars can be seen in the foreground passing between Ward and the inside of the track prior to Stewart’s car hitting Ward, most of which appear to be much closer to the inside of the track than the outside. Only 3 more cars passed after Stewart’s, immediately after which a waiting ATV and truck quickly entered the track, which indicated that the people waiting to help Ward were probably able to see that these last 3 racers were the last to enter a line for the restart. According to the race results, there were a total of 22 racers. This makes a total of 24 cars, including Stewart’s and another that passed Ward’s car after the first collision. It is quite possible that a restart flag did not go up until after the first two cars passed the flag position and had to pass the accident scene twice.

Assuming that a restart was communicated, this shows three big reasons why a driver should have been traveling slowly. First, the cars should slow down and drive to avoid any stopped or disabled cars. There was not much dust to prevent visibility, the track was small, and the visibility out of the side of a sprint car is quite good; thus, a racer should easily be able to see a stopped car even from the opposite side of the track and on the approach sufficient to be able to avoid it.

Second, the cars had to be slowing down because they would presumably have to stop for the line-up in preparation for the restart. All three of the cars that came after Stewart’s second collision drove past less than five seconds later; they were not driving quickly and one was moving so slowly you can almost read the words on the side of the tires.

Third, there was no reason to hurry because the order of the racers is preserved unless you are Stewart and Ward, both of whom were supposed to be sent to the back of the race for being involved in the collision (assuming Stewart’s car actually made contact with Ward’s car).

Based upon the information obtained from the video in combination with the rules and some assumptions, it appears that Stewart was likely negligent for failing to drive slowly and avoid Ward walking on the track. While it is difficult to tell exactly, it appears that after Ward exited his vehicle, three of the 18 passing cars did not drive past on the very inside of the track. Stewart was the last of the three. He had the most time to slow down of the three and he was the 17th of now-21 cars to enter the line for the restart. He likely had ample time to observe Ward on the track and to take actions to avoid him by traveling on the inside of the track just like most of the other safe drivers.

Some individuals have commented that Ward should not have been on the track so Stewart should be excused. That is similar to stating that any driver who hits a pedestrian on a freeway should face no liability. Drivers on a freeway still have obligations to drive safely and avoid hazards and other people, even if the pedestrian is not supposed to be there.

In regards to comparative negligence, there is little doubt that Ward is at least partially at fault for the unfortunate incident. Common sense dictates that a pedestrian does not belong in the middle of dirt racetrack where multiple vehicles are traveling. Furthermore, the 2015 Canandaigua rules, which were likely the same in regard to this section state:

Any driver involved in an accident, spin, or has a mechanical failure on the track MUST stay in their car until the Safety Crew arrives. If there is imminent danger of fire or leaking fluids you may exit the car and stand as close to the car as possible. If you exit your car you will be penalized.10)Source

 

Ward clearly violated this rule, which was for his own safety. The most difficult determination is whether Ward’s negligence exceeded Stewart’s. This decision would probably be affected by evidence not available to the public at this time such as whether Stewart “revved” his engine while passing Ward in an attempt to intimidate Ward, which would also suggest that the location of Stewart’s car closer to Ward was also part of an intimidation tactic. If so, this would show Stewart was behaving even more dangerously than the video shows. Assuming that there was an order for the racers to restart, Ward had some expectation of safety in walking on the track because the cars would be slowing down to get in line. While additional facts could tip my opinion either way, I am going to slightly side with Ward and argue that he was 45% at fault and Stewart was 55% at fault.

 

Concluding Thoughts from Our Hypothetical Wrongful Death Discussion

It would ultimately be up to a jury to decide whether Stewart should be held at fault for wrongful death of Kevin Ward Jr.. After Stewart’s and Ward’s cars appeared to have collided, causing Ward’s car to lose control and crash, it appears a restart of the race was ordered. Ward negligently walked on foot towards the middle of the track before all the cars stopped and approached Stewart’s car, which was moving when Ward’s body was tragically thrown. Stewart likely knew of the importance to slow down and stay away from the accident scene and appeared to only partially perform these actions. Thus, both men appeared to be negligent, yet Stewart appeared to be slightly more so.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. for better or worse
2. Source
3. NRS 41.085.
4. Nevada Jury Instructions – Civil 2011 Edition Inst. 4.16; Cnty. of Clark, ex rel. Univ. Med. Ctr. v. Upchurch, 114 Nev. 749, 759, 961 P.2d 754, 760 (1998).
5. Scialabba v. Barndise Const. Co., 921 P.2d 928, 930 (Nev. 1996) (citing Perez v. Las Vegas Med. Ctr., 107 Nev. 1, 4, 805 P.2d 589, 590 [1991]
6. Turner v. Mandalay Sports Entm’t, LLC, 124 Nev. 213, 220, 180 P.3d 1172, 1177 (2008
7. Doud v. Las Vegas Hilton Corp., 109 Nev. 1096, 1106, 864 P.2d 796, 802 (1993).
8. (NRS 41.1410
9. Id.
10. Source
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