The motor sports world suffered a great loss on Saturday, August 9, 2014 when Kevin Ward, Jr. died of massive blunt force trauma after he was struck during a sprint car race by Tony Stewart’s vehicle. As this perplexing and tragic event is being investigated, no criminal charges have been filed to date. However, WTHR News reported that Stewart has retained seasoned Indianapolis defense attorney James Voyles just days after the fatal wreck.
Regardless of what the New York prosecutors decide to do as far as criminal charges are concerned, it is likely that Tony Stewart will face legal action in the civil arena. That is, even if New York authorities conclude that Ward Jr.’s death was entirely accidental, his family could conceivably pursue a wrongful-death civil case under a theory of negligence.
The differences between proving manslaughter in criminal court and proving negligence in civil court are significant. For one, the level of intent is much lower for negligence, as a wrongful death plaintiff need only show that the defendant’s actions fell below a standard of reasonable care under the circumstances. (By contrast, a prosecutor needs to prove the act that caused the death was intentional, or at minimum, severely reckless.) Moreover, theburden of proof in a civil case requires the plaintiff demonstrate that it is more probable than not that the defendant was negligent and that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff damage. The time-honored criminal burden of proof is that all elements of a criminal charge be demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt,” a much higher bar to meet.
In spite of the ugliness of the scene that resulted in Ward Jr.’s death, there remain challenges for his estate if it seeks to bring a wrongful death claim. Ladendorf Law founding attorney Mark Ladendorf explained some of these challenges in an interview with WTHR (local NBC) on Monday.
From a claimant’s perspective, Mark’s first concern is whether Kevin Ward Jr. executed a waiver or release of liability prior to participating in the sprint race. Athletic releases–which operate to bar a future civil claim in exchange for the athlete being allowed to participate–are pervasive in motor sports. In many instances, the language of the release / waiver signed by a deceased individual can be binding upon his heirs in a wrongful death case.
Second, Mark discussed one of the critical differences between the substantive laws of New York, where the incident occurred, and Indiana, which is Tony Stewart’s home state. Under the Indiana Adult Wrongful Death Statute (codified at I.C. 34-23-1-2), the estate of an emancipated adult who is killed through the fault of another can only collect at most $300,000 in “non-economic damages” — that is, damages that represent the loss of love, care and companionship. This is only one type of “damage cap” created by the Indiana Legislature to limit a party’s recovery. The State of New York, by contrast, does not cap wrongful death damages for the statutory survivors of the deceased.
To view portions of Mark Ladendorf’s interview with WTHR, click here.
Ladendorf Law will continue to follow this developing story. Our practice is devoted exclusively to representing victims of personal injury accidents, medical malpractice and wrongful death. Please do not hesitate to call us if we may assist you, your friends or acquaintances with a case.