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Tony Stewart Accident Raises Legal Concerns

louis-cairo-desk-editThe tragic death of race car driver Kevin Ward has prompted questions about the legal issues that arise and remedies available when an unfortunate occurrence– like the one surrounding Ward’s death– takes place. Among these questions, the public is interested in knowing whether Wards family will be able to file a lawsuit against Tony Stewartthe world renowned race car driver whose vehicle struck and killed Ward.

In assessing the merits of any suit against Stewart, it is important to understand the dynamics of the law in this situation. A personal injury lawsuit requires the aggrieved party or plaintiff to prove that Stewart acted negligently when his vehicle struck and killed Ward.

In a general negligence case, the plaintiff must:

  1. First prove that the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff to act with care
  2. Then prove that the defendant, by way of its conduct, violated this duty to act with care
  3. Finally, the plaintiff must prove that the injury occurred as a result of the defendants breach of duty

In the tragic situation at Canandaigua Motorsports Park, the representatives of Wards estate would have the greatest difficulty trying to prove that Stewart breached the duty of care in the manner in which he operated his racing vehicle. And even if there was evidence that could potentially prove a breach, the evidence of Ward’s assumption of risk in walking into a field with racing vehicles speeding around a race track would be almost impossible to overcome.

The Impact of Waivers

Under the Assumption of Risk Doctrine, if a plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily assumes the risk of harm associated with the activity that led to their injury or death, it can be a total bar to recovery in some states, or a diminishing factor in others. In Illinois, AOR is a diminishing factor in negligence matters. In New York, it is a diminishing factor as well. Assumption of the risk comes in two forms: express or implied. Under express assumption of the risk, the injured party explicitly agrees to accept the risk usually in the form of signed agreement. If Ward signed a waiver before racing on the track before Saturdays race, then Stewart could likely succeed in proving that he had no duty to Ward under the assumption of the risk doctrine.

However, much litigation surrounds the use of Waivers at functions like a race and the Court’s can frequently change the position of the law absent some statutory law that relates specifically to the issue at hand.

Even absent a signed release, Stewart could still try to prove Ward implicitly assumed the risk of injury on the race track. In determining implicit assumption of the risk the courts look at the plaintiff’s willingness to engage in an activity deemed dangerous. In this case, a judge could very easily find that Ward implicitly assumed the risk of injury on the race track by his mere participation in the race. If Ward’s estate was able to prove he did not assume the risk, the court could still reduce Wards estate recovery under the defense of comparative negligence.

Under the law of comparative negligence, a defendant can argue that even if it was negligent, the plaintiffs own lack of care was a contributing factor to his own injuries. The court will then reduce the award based on the plaintiffs own percentage of fault.

In Wards scenario, Stewart could likely successfully argue that Ward contributed to his own death by getting out of the car and walking into an active racetrack with cars flying around the track.  The last thing that Tony Stewart would have been looking for, or reasonably anticipating, as he came around a corner would be a person walking in the middle of the active track. Despite Stewart’s strong defense, Ward’s ability to recover differs from state to state.

In Illinois, if the plaintiff is found to be more than 50 percent at fault, he/she will not be allowed to recover anything for their injuries.  If they are 50% responsible or less, then their total damage award is reduced by their percentage of comparative negligence. However, the rules on comparative  negligence differ in New York where the speedway incident took place. A plaintiff’s own negligence cannot bar recovery. For this reason, Ward faces a greater chance of recovery in New York than Illinois.  A New York court could even award damages to Ward in the event he is found to be 99% responsible for his accident while Stewart would only be one percent responsible. But even in New York, Ward’s recovery would be reduced by the percentage of his own fault in contributing to the accident.

Have You Become A Victim In A Serious Auto Accident?

The tragedy surrounding Wards death will bring a great deal of speculation and media scrutiny. However, the importance of understanding the legal issues arising from such a situation cannot be understated, and competent legal counsel is so very important in determining whether you may be entitled to a recovery.