Police Reverse Venus Williams Crash Fault Determination

In a development that underscores the complex and shifting nature of evidence in a car crash, the Palm Beach Gardens, Florida Police Department says new evidence indicates that the tennis star was not at fault in a July 2017 fatal car crash.

Investigators initially faulted Ms. Williams in the intersection collision, largely based on eyewitness testimony that she ran a stop light and “cut off” a vehicle carrying 78-year-old Jerome Barson. His family subsequently filed a wrongful death suit, claiming Ms. Williams was negligent. However, newly-obtained surveillance video appears to show Ms. Williams entering the intersection on green and then stopping because another vehicle turned in front of her. A few moments later, when her light cycled to red, Mr. Barson’s vehicle t-boned Ms. Williams’ SUV in the intersection. Mr. Barson suffered massive injuries in the collision and died about two weeks after the car crash.

During a brief preliminary hearing accompanying the announcement, both sides agreed on provisions for examining electronic evidence.


Fault vs. Liability

Although many people use these terms synonymously in negligence cases, they actually mean two different things. “Fault” is an initial determination based on only the evidence that first responders gather at the scene, such as the police report, witness statements, property damage, and driver statements. Significantly, if the victim is killed or seriously injured, the police report only includes one side of the story.

Liability, on the other hand, is a legal determination that’s based on both all available evidence and any applicable legal arguments. The evidentiary portion normally includes:

  • Additional Witness Statements: First responders are primarily on the scene to secure the area and tend to injured victims, so they do not talk to any fact witnesses who do not voluntarily come forward at that moment.
  • Electronic Evidence: Almost all passenger vehicles are equipped with event data recorders, which contain crash data like vehicle speed, steering angle, brake application, and other important metrics. To examine an EDR, a personal injury attorney usually must get a court order, due to privacy laws.
  • Surveillance Video: This evidence is available in many cases, particularly intersection collisions, because there are so many red-light cameras, security cameras, and amateur videographers.

It is not unusual for this evidence, and other evidence like it, to completely counter the police report, as illustrated in the Venus Williams case.


Legal Issues

The car crash laws in New York and Florida are quite similar, so the results would probably be the same in either jurisdiction. For example, the Empire State and the Sunshine State both have a no-fault auto insurance law, which affects the damages that victims in these states may obtain. Furthermore, both these jurisdictions recognize some variation of the last clear chance defense, which Ms. Williams’ attorneys will almost certainly invoke.

In short, if a victim has a reasonably good opportunity to avoid a car crash with a tortfeasor (negligent driver) and the victim does not take that chance, the tortfeasor is not liable for damages. In the above case, it appears that Mr. Barson had a chance to avoid the crash by not entering the intersection when Ms. Williams blocked his path. Arguably, therefore, Ms. Williams is not legally responsible for his injuries.

However, a jury may have to decide this case, because after all, Ms. Williams was clearly in the intersection illegally.