Legal hurdles face Venus Williams after her involvement in fatal car accident

1:04 | Tennis
Lawsuit filed in fatal crash involving Venus Williams
Friday June 30th, 2017

A recent car crash involving tennis star Venus Williams has led to a death of a 78-year-old man and an uncertain legal aftermath.

The crash occurred at approximately 1:13 pm on June 9. It took place at the intersection of Northlake Boulevard and Ballen Isles Drive—an intersection that is next to the BallenIsles Country Club—in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The local police department and Williams’ attorney, Malcolm Cunningham, dispute a crucial aspect of the incident: whether Williams ran a red light.

According to the police, witnesses saw Williams drive her 2010 Toyota Sequoia SUV through a red light at a six-lane intersection. While in the intersection area, Williams apparently encountered heavy traffic and could only drive about 5 miles per hour. This led to her SUV not advancing while the traffic lights corresponding to the other lanes turned green. In other words, Williams’ SUV was stuck in an intersection at the worst time possible.

Seconds earlier, a Hyundai Accent driven by 68-year-old Esther Linda Barson, with her 78-year-old passenger Jerome Barson as a passenger, drove through a green light in that same intersection. Linda Barson says she had no time to react when she saw Williams’ SUV dart in front of her and then slow down or stop due to traffic.

Tennis
Lawsuit filed in fatal crash involving Venus Williams

Barson’s car then crashed into Williams’ SUV. Both Barsons suffered significant injuries and required hospitalization. Jerome Barson, who required several surgeries, died 14 days later at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach. Williams, who is 37 years old, was not hurt.

Although police note that Williams’ violated “the right of way” of Linda Barson, Williams has not been cited with a traffic offense or charged with a crime. Further, there is no evidence that alcohol, drugs or cell phone distraction played any role in the accident. Instead, it appears to be a relatively simple but tragic case of Williams getting stuck in an intersection and, as a consequence, unintentionally blocking traffic for cars in a lane that had a green light.

In a statement, Cunningham does not contest most parts of the police’s narrative. He calls the incident an “unfortunate accident” and relays that Williams offers her “deepest condolences.” However, Cunningham insists that Williams drove through a green light.

Obviously, Williams would shoulder less blame if she drove through a green light. But she could still be “blamed” in that a driver is not supposed to enter an intersection unless he or she is certain to clear the intersection before the light changes. Williams, in other words, could still be found at fault for blocking the right of way of Linda Barson. But the severity of Williams’ wrongful driving would be much lower.

Williams could still be issued a traffic citation or even charged with a crime

While Williams has not yet been issued a traffic citation, the description of the incident offered by the police suggests a good chance she will be cited. Potential citations would be for carless driving, violation of a traffic control device and violation of right of way. These citations normally lead to imposition of fines of several hundred dollars and, in the case of resulting serious injury or death, suspension of a driver’s license along with mandated community service and traffic school. These citations also lead to points being added to one’s driving record and thus an increased car insurance rate. Williams is no stranger to traffic citations. According to the New York Times, Williams was previously cited in Palm Beach County for driving without proof of insurance and for driving with a suspended license.

Williams could contest some of these potential citations. While she would be at fault for blocking an intersection, she might argue that witnesses who claim they saw her run a red light were mistaken. Perhaps those witnesses’ viewing angles were limited or obstructed. Perhaps, upon questioning by Williams’ attorney, those witnesses might not be 100% certain about whether they really saw Williams run a red light. There might also be other witnesses who recall the light was green when Williams drove through it. Also, it is unclear at this time if traffic cameras are available. However, if such cameras were in place and if they were operating properly, recordings of the incident would be helpful.

Given the various mitigating factors—Williams was driving slowly and she was not impaired by alcohol/drugs/distraction—it seems unlikely that Williams would be charged with a more serious offense. Yet such a charge remains a possibility.

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Reckless driving is one such offense. In Florida it refers to driving with a “willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” If Williams knowingly drove through a red light in the middle of traffic, her conduct might display a disregard for safety. A person convicted of reckless driving can face up to 90 days in jail.

An even less likely possibility is that Williams is charged with vehicular homicide, which entails killing another person due to reckless driving. A vehicular homicide charge in this scenario would carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence.

Whether Williams’ driving “caused” the death of Jerome Barson would surely incite debate between prosecutors and Williams’ attorney. While prosecutors would link Barson’s death to Williams’ driving, Cunningham would try to weaken the connection by stressing that Barson died 14 days later, after multiple surgeries performed by health care professionals. It’s also unknown if Barson, a 78-year-old person, had any preexisting health conditions that might have played some role in his death.

Potential civil liability for Williams

Even if Williams is not cited, she is vulnerable to civil claims for the death of Jerome Barson and for injuries suffered by Linda Barson. Under Florida law, Linda Barson could file a wrongful death claim against Williams and argue that Williams’ negligent driving caused her husband’s death. If Barson were successful in such a claim, she may be able to recover damages fo-r the emotional turmoil she and other family members suffered. She could also be entitled to funeral expenses and loss of financial support (for instance, if Jerome Barson received a pension that did not have a survivorship benefit, Linda Barson would have a stronger claim for loss of financial support). Barson’s advanced age, however, would be a limiting factor in regards to loss of financial support.

In addition, Linda Barson could file a survival action, where she would demand compensation for the suffering her husband experienced between the time of the accident and his death. Barson could also sue Williams for negligence related to her own injuries.

The most likely outcome is that no such lawsuit is filed. Williams, whose net worth has been estimated to be as high as $75 million, will probably try to reach a financial settlement with Barson prior to any lawsuit.

Williams presumably does not want to go to trial where the public would be reminded of the accident and where an elderly plaintiff would assert, in so many words, that Williams killed her husband.

Williams has to be mindful of her endorsement deals, which are reportedly with Electronic Arts, Ralph Lauren and other companies. Those deals likely contain “morals clauses.” These clauses would allow the endorsed company to exit the endorsement agreement if the company felt that Williams’ reputation was irreparably damaged. Further, Williams does not want any controversy to impact consumer opinions of her apparel company, EleVen.

SI.com will keep you posted on further developments.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

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