Three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart has agreed to settle with the parents of Kevin Ward Jr. five weeks before the wrongful death lawsuit over Ward’s death was supposed to go to trial, reports ESPN. Ward died after being hit by Stewart’s car at a race during the Empire Super Sprints race at Canandaigua Speedway in on August 9, 2014.
A settlement hearing is set for April 12 to finalize the terms of the settlement, which would end the civil lawsuit filed by Ward’s parents a year after Ward’s death, after officials determined they would not press charges against Stewart over the incident.
Ward was struck by Stewart’s car after leaving his own vehicle on track during a caution period of a race to express his displeasure with Stewart, as he’d wrecked while battling for position with Stewart. Cars were still circulating on track, however, and video of the incident shows Ward approaching race traffic after he was out of his car.
Stewart’s car hit Ward, tossing him 25 feet. Ward died 45 minutes later from blunt force trauma. He was 20 years old.
Ward’s family maintained that Stewart intentionally kicked the rear out on his sprint car by applying the throttle when he was close to Ward to intimidate him.
Ward’s parents also theorized that Stewart was acting out in front of an ex-girlfriend, as ESPN writes:
Ward’s parents mentioned that their son was a friend of Stewart’s ex-girlfriend, Jessica Zemken, who also was competing in the race.
“Jessica was right behind him and Kevin was right in front of him, and that would be a good opportunity to show them both up,” Ward Jr.’s mother, Pamela, said in her deposition.
However, Stewart maintained that striking Ward was an accident, and that he tried to change direction when he saw Ward out of his car on track. Crash reconstruction experts hired by Stewart’s legal team noted that he only had 1.4 seconds at most to react to the sight of Ward on track, which wasn’t enough for him to be able to dodge Ward, notes ESPN.
Stewart had sought to dismiss the wrongful death and gross negligence claims brought against him in the Ward family lawsuit as both Ward and his father had waived their right to legal claims when they acknowledged the risks involved in racing in signing a waiver for the event. However, New York state public policy law deems such liability waivers unenforceable when people pay a fee to use recreational facilities like Canandaigua Speedway.
After the incident, Stewart told the Associated Press that he was so “overwhelmed by grief” that he was unable to leave the house for some time. He was actively racing in NASCAR’s Cup Series at the time, but missed the next three Cup races after Ward’s death. He refrained from racing Sprint cars entirely for two years following the incident, and only got back into one after he had retired from racing professionally.
Complicating matters further was a toxicology report that determined that Ward was under the influence of marijuana at the time of his death.
The trial had been set for May 7, and likely would have brought up a number of uncomfortable subjects for Stewart as well as the family, including what ESPN politely describes as Stewart’s “temperamental past.”