Tony Stewart testified that he did nothing wrong when his sprint car struck and killed Kevin Ward Jr. nearly four years ago. He has called the tragedy a "100 percent" accident.
But he has settled a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Ward's parents for an undisclosed amount. The Wards alleged that Stewart recklessly handled his race car and maneuvered toward their 20-year-old son, who had gotten out of his car and approached Stewart's car under caution during the Aug. 9, 2014, Empire Super Sprints race at Canandaigua (New York) Motorsports Park.
Stewart wouldn't comment on the settlement after the court hearing last week.
The settlement wasn't a surprise to those who follow such cases. New York is a comparative negligence state, so if a jury put any percentage on Stewart being at fault, it could have awarded the Ward family money.
"A trial is a risky strategy," said Lauri Eberhart, former executive vice president and general counsel for Speedway Motorsports Inc. and founder of the Apollo Sports & Entertainment Law Group. "There are big gains, and there are big losses. ... You throw it into the wild card of a jury, saying, 'OK, jury, you decide how much Mr. Ward was at fault, and you can parse out a percentage.' It's an unknown."
Matt Jones, host and founder of Kentucky Sports Radio and a former attorney, said the reasons to settle typically break down to whether the celebrity sees the possibility of a loss, wanting the issue to go away and the potential of a trial bringing out something embarrassing in the past.
"Any of those three are plausible scenarios for Stewart," Jones said. "I don't know which one, but all of those are things that could happen."
In New York, a family cannot get damages for its pain and suffering. But it can get damages for the victim's pain and suffering and any fear of pending death. Those amounts can crack $1 million in some cases in New York. Then again, the jury could have determined that Ward knew the risk when he got out of his car and ruled totally in favor of Stewart.
Jones said what Stewart would have paid for the trial likely wasn't as much as what he has paid in legal fees since the lawsuit was filed in August 2015, but the settlement could have been less than any verdict. The trial alone would likely cost at least $100,000 -- if not upward toward $500,000 in legal fees -- said Eberhart, who is familiar with motorsports liability cases, having worked for SMI.
"Even if there's nothing at fault, there's still a cost going through a public trial," Eberhart said. "It comes down to a cost-benefit analysis and what is the most logical business decision on the part of our clients, but also what is in the best interest of protecting their image in the court of public opinion."
The Stewart case isn't the typical accident and includes vehicles the general public does not drive. As such, though it isn't rare for both sides in wrongful death cases to present experts backing their views, the experts would have had to explain how a sprint car works and how it handles to a jury who likely have never driven (nor seen a race) of sprint cars.
"Let's say there's an 80 percent chance my guy is believed. There's still a 20 percent chance [the Ward expert is] believed," Jones said. "But if I can get off now paying one-tenth as much as he's asking for, you play the numbers, and it may make sense.
"The other thing is, the more technical it is, the harder it is for juries. ... There comes a point that people worry that juries will decide on which of the two they like. And you don't know."
Eberhart said experts tend to cancel each other out in the minds of jury members if they can't figure out which expert to believe in a technical case.
"It's going to be the other evidence that comes in that's going to sway the jury," Eberhart said. "And then you've got a grieving family that's very sympathetic, whether or not he was under the influence or he somehow contributed to the accident."
The fact that Ward had marijuana in his system could have impacted whether the jury felt Ward was partially responsible for his own death and could have impacted the amount awarded. But the jury also could have ruled that a nonfactor (that it didn't impact whether Ward walked on the track and didn't impact whether he suffered and had fear), focusing totally on what Stewart did and what would be expected from a race car driver in that situation.
Jones said the marijuana issue would likely have focused on whether there was enough marijuana in Ward to dictate his actions.
"It's hard for me to see how that matters, but it might be the case somebody is arguing by having marijuana in his system, he got out of the car when he shouldn't have, and it wouldn't have happened otherwise," Jones said.
A trial also could have opened up Stewart's past, as the Ward family likely would have attempted to use his temperamental history as evidence of what he was thinking at the time. Whether the judge would have allowed that testimony was never determined. Stewart had an ex-girlfriend, Jessica Zemken, in the race. She is the woman Stewart referred to as "dead weight" when he won at New Hampshire following their breakup in September 2011.
A judge would have had to determine whether Stewart's past is reasonably related and relevant to the ongoing proceedings and then determine the impact of such evidence, said Matt Morgan of Morgan & Morgan, a well-known firm that represents plaintiffs in liability cases.
"The court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a danger of one or more of the following: unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, misleading the jury, undue delay, wasting time or needlessly presenting cumulative evidence," Morgan said.
How a judge decides on that information could have "a significant impact" on the case, Morgan said.
"Things like Tony Stewart's driving history, Tony Stewart's actions on the track and similar things in the past -- all of that is going to be relevant," Jones said. "There might just be something he doesn't want to have [out there]. I had a client years ago saying, 'I don't want my life to be on trial.'
"In situations like this, where basically you're trying to guess what was in Tony Stewart's mind when this happened, you almost can't help but put Tony Stewart the person on trial."
Stewart still has sponsors and a race team to think about when considering the potential impact of a trial.
"You've got the risk of the public narrative turning negative, and so you eliminate that risk by going ahead and settling even if you're not at fault," Eberhart said.
On the Wards' side, Pamela Ward said in court last week that they didn't have the financial means to proceed toward trial, and she felt she had no choice but to settle.
Attorney Mark Lanier told USA Today that the settlement would have been more than the family could have expected to receive if it had won the case and then expenses were deducted.
Lanier declined to elaborate when contacted by ESPN.
If the family had won at trial, Stewart would have appealed the verdict based on liability waivers Ward -- and his father, as the car owner -- signed prior to the race. U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd ruled the waivers as unenforceable, but if an appeals court reversed that controversial ruling, a new trial could have been conducted -- and could've put the Wards on the hook for Stewart's legal fees.
"It creates a scenario in which the plaintiff could be responsible for paying the legal fees and costs of the defense, should an unfavorable verdict be rendered in the matter," Morgan said.
By settling, both sides also avoided reliving the tragic night.
"You've got the intimate, graphic details of someone's demise that gets played out in the public every day. ... There's an emotional cost going through that very public trial," Eberhart said.
It would have been that way for both sides, though it appeared the Ward family was prepared.
"The family is forced to relive their loss during the pendency of the entire case," Morgan said. "Answering questions under oath, looking at gruesome pictures, going over the details of the death of their loved one and more. It is difficult to begin the healing process while continuing to relive the tragedy. However, for many families, obtaining justice for their loved one carries the day."
The question, of course, is whether the Ward family would have obtained justice with a jury ruling. Even if Stewart won, would he have helped himself in the court of public opinion, or has public opinion already been formed by what people have seen and read?
"If I was making an educated guess, I would say the plaintiffs' attorneys probably didn't think it was the strongest case, but Tony Stewart also knew if he lost, it could be a ton of money," Jones said.
"And if a jury were to believe that Tony Stewart did it on purpose, they're going to pound him. ... It's hard to imagine a situation where a jury would say, 'It's your fault, but we're not giving them much money.'"