Legal impact of Venus Williams being cleared after fatal car accident

1:04 | Tennis
Lawsuit filed in fatal crash involving Venus Williams
Wednesday July 12th, 2017

The Palm Beach Gardens (Florida) Police Department initially blamed Venus Williams for a June 9 car crash involving two other people, one of whom would die a couple of weeks later. As explained below, the police department has studied new video evidence and reversed its original conclusion. Williams is thus no longer blamed for the accident. The reversal poses significant legal and reputational consequences for the five-time Wimbledon champion.

While some aspects of the accident remain in dispute, there appears to be agreement that at about 1:10 pm on June 9, Williams drove her 2010 Toyota Sequoia SUV at around 5 miles per hour in an intersection when a Hyundai Accent, driven by 68-year-old Esther Linda Barson, drove through a green light and hit the passenger side of Williams’ SUV. The crash caused serious injuries to Barson’s passenger, 78-year-old Jerome Barson, who was hospitalized with severed main arteries. He would die two weeks later. Linda Barson also suffered significant injuries, including a cracked sternum and a broken wrist. Williams avoided injury though her car was damaged.

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Williams was blamed for running a red light and for violating the Hyundai Accent’s right of way. Williams’ driving allegedly made it impossible for Barson to avoid hitting her. The assignment of blame onto Williams was based at least in part on witness statements and their recollection of whether Williams ran a red light.

The accident sparked a legal aftermath. Most notably, the estate of Mr. Barson sued Williams for wrongful death in a Palm Beach County circuit court. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages not only for Mr. Barson’s death but also for the pain and suffering that he and his wife experienced following the accident.

The Palm Beach Gardens Police Department has since amended its view of the accident. In a statement released last Friday, the police say “new evidence”—namely surveillance video—indicate that Williams drove through a green light and only slowed in the intersection to avoid a collision with a Nissan Altima that had turned in front of Williams’ SUV. The video shows Williams’ SUV hit quite hard in the intersection.

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The legal impact of the revised account of the accident is significant. For starters, it indicates that Williams obeyed the law. Such a conclusion all but eliminates the possibility that Williams will face a traffic citation.

 As previously explained on SI.com, the original police account implied that Williams could face traffic citations for careless driving, violation of a traffic control device and violation of right of way. There was also the possibility of criminal charges, such as reckless driving or vehicular homicide. While the investigation remains ongoing and while it’s theoretically possible that additional evidence surfaces which could complicate how law enforcement view the incident, Williams now appears to be in the clear.

Williams is also in a much stronger position to defend against the wrongful death lawsuit. The lawsuit requires a showing that Williams was negligent, which, among other things, requires that Williams engaged in unreasonable conduct. The fact that Williams seemingly drove in compliance with the law indicates that she drove reasonably, not unreasonably. In fact, had she been seriously hurt, Williams would be in a position to consider bringing a negligence lawsuit against Linda Barson: even at a green light, a driver normally shouldn’t proceed into an intersection when other cars are blocking.

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Williams has handled the incident in respectful manner. Instead of directing blame at Linda Barson or protesting her own innocence, Williams has simply expressed her condolences and prayers to the Barson family. She also admitted to being “completely speechless” about the incident in an emotional July 3 press conference at Wimbledon. While some in the public have disparaged her a “murderer” and “killer”—just read some of the harsh replies to Williams’ most recent tweet—Williams seems genuinely remorseful about the death of another human being. Along those lines, any remote possibility of Electronic Arts, Ralph Lauren or another company Williams endorses terminating its sponsorship deal with her on grounds of violating a morals clause is virtually nil.

As to the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department, it correctly changed its initial conclusion on account of obtaining and analyzing new evidence. Still, Williams might object to the police so unwaveringly blaming her in the first place: the statement, “THE DRIVER OF V1 IS AT FAULT FOR VIOLATING THE RIGHT OF WAY OF V2” in the traffic crash narrative left no room for debate at a time when the existence of video evidence had yet been ruled out, let alone studied.

For her part, the 37-year-old Williams continues to advance at Wimbledon. On Thursday Williams will take on Johanna Konta in the semi-finals.

SI.com will keep you updated on any developments in the case.

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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