Longtime NASCAR fan favorite Tony Stewart just got some very bad news. Smoke’s been in legal hot water ever since a tragic and bizarre accident at the Empire Super Sprint sprint car event in upstate New York in August 2014, when young driver Kevin Ward Jr. exited his car after a wreck and stormed onto the track under caution, rushing Stewart’s car. Stewart failed to avoid the running Ward, and the younger man was killed on impact. While Stewart was cleared of criminal charges, a New York District Court judge recently ruled that Ward’s family can proceed with all civil claims against the former NASCAR Monster Energy Cup champion.
The basis for this ruling is simple, but the effects could stretch far beyond this particular case. Essentially, the race qualified as a recreational activity under New York state law, and judge has found that the liability waivers that Ward Jr. and his father signed prior to the event (much like every participant in every race, ever) are legally unenforceable. Not only does this leave Tony Stewart legally liable on four separate claims, it represents a major blow to grassroots motorsports in the state of New York and the country at large, if other judges follow this precedent.
The more you think about the implications of this, the bleaker things look for the future of racing. Suddenly, any time there’s a racing incident, anyone injured can sue all parties and the venue itself for damages. This is one thing at the NASCAR Cup level, but consider for a moment the local dragstrip or dirt track. Most of these facilities run on a razor margin to begin with, and many are already under intense legal pressure to shutter (mostly due to noise complaints from encroaching residential developments. Seriously, if you don’t want to listen to engines, don’t build or move near a race track). This is another major blow to an already weakened grassroots, and one that may push the sport of racing over the edge in the near future.
While it may be very bad news for Tony Stewart, the news may be even worse for the rest of us.