We may not have heard much regarding lawsuits in auto racing, but it is not a precedent. Now Tony Stewart has been, predictably, dragged into one that has too many downsides for him to become distracted from what he does best, racing cars.
The youngsters out there probably wont remember the name of the late, great Mark Donahue, however you should.
Donahue drove for Roger Penske and was his first true star prior to Rick Mears. He drove Trans-Am and won, Can-Am and won, the Indy 500 and won, in NASCAR and won, he was the very first IROC champion, but then Penske moved into Formula One.
In Formula One he had 14 starts and stood on the podium in Canada. Unfortunately while practicing for the 1975 Austrian Gran Prix a tire blew, he hit a catch fence, killing a track worker, walked away and then died from a cerebral hemorrhage the next day.
His heirs sued Goodyear for a blown tire that caused the accident. But the heirs didn’t stop there.
According to an article from the LA Times in 1986:
“An out-of-court settlement was reached Wednesday at Providence, R.I., in the appeal of a $9.6-million Superior Court verdict awarded the estate of race driver Mark Donohue, killed during practice for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix.
The verdict of April, 1984, the largest ever returned in a Rhode Island state court, had been appealed to the state Supreme Court by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio, and by the Penske Corp. of Reading, Pa.
Donohue’s heirs claimed that his death stemmed from negligence on the part of Goodyear, which made the left front tire that blew out on Donohue’s Formula One racer, and on the part of the Penske Corp., owner of the car.
Under the terms of the settlement, the amount of which was not disclosed, Donohue’s widow, Eden Donohue Rafshoon, will share the money with Donohue’s two teen-age sons.”
Here’s the real problem: Every racing driver or corner worker knows exactly how dangerous the sport of auto racing can be. The life expectancy of a mayfly was more certain the a Formula One driver during the Donahue time period.
Despite this, signed waivers, excellent medical care and wellwishers this is a dangerous sport in all it’s forms and you can get sued. For anything.
You can get sued as a driver, equipment manufacturer (Bell was sued as well as Penske) or team owner. The problem for Tony Stewart is that he drives and owns a four car Sprint Cup NASCAR team.
Tony Stewart is only now getting comfortable with the Gen 6 2.0 car. His finishes and movement backwards to the middle of the pack in 2015 could be a direct result of both a severely broken leg and this lawsuit being brought against him for the death of 20 year old Kevin Ward, Jr. in a sprint car accident on August 9th 2014.
Does he have a defense? Of course he does. Ward was found to have marijuana in his system according to the toxicology test performed during autopsy. So what?
Anyone can be sued for anything and in a case that is as emotionally charged as this, Stewart may very well choose to settle in order to keep himself grounded, keep his sponsors out of the fray and, in general, get his life back together. It’s all taken a toll on the likable, generous and sometimes fiery Indiana native.
Here’s the takeaway: Civil Court cases do not have to reach the level of evidence required in a criminal case. Stewart was never criminally charged. Anything he’s ever been accused of, done or said, videos, you name it, can or may be allowed in a Civil case.
Get the lawyers, weigh the potential emotional and financial damage, and if it seems to be the lessor of two evils, settle with this family rather than have this take the inevitable toll of bringing down a successful racing team and driving figure.
Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and take the abuse. It may not be right, but it’s the only course of action he really has unless his sponsors are willing to have their name appear every time a reporter writes about the case.
On this one, I’ll have to agree with my friend, Bob Pockrass, who wrote an article  on this subject in September of 2014.
Once again we’re having to ask ourselves: Will this litigious society we have created ultimately destroy the sport we all know and love?
Hell no, we’ll regulate it to death before the lawsuits kill it.