Lawyers for tennis star Venus Williams are ratcheting up her defense against a wrongful death lawsuit, accusing the crash victim’s widow of not paying attention behind the wheel and also placing blame on a third, unidentified driver.
In a recent court filing, Williams’ legal team says the blame first falls on Linda Barson, whose 78-year-old husband Jerome Barson died 13 days after the June collision in Palm Beach Gardens.
Linda Barson drove the Hyundai Accent that hit Williams’ Toyota Sequoia; the Barson family is suing Williams.
Among other allegations, Williams now claims Barson, 68, was negligent by being distracted behind the wheel, and failing to stop for traffic.
The second driver targeted by Williams’ lawyers is the unidentified operator of a dark color sedan, possibly a Nissan Altima, which turned in front of Williams’ SUV just prior to the crash.
The tennis celebrity is scheduled to provide her first sworn testimony during a Nov. 9 deposition. That’s a day after Barson answers questions from the lawyers.
It appears likely both women will be asked: Were you distracted before the crash because you were texting or talking on your phone?
Distracted driving claims
An allegation from the Barson estate lawyers — denied by Williams’ camp — is that she may have been distracted by her smartphone just before impact.
Williams’ lawyers agreed to turn over her phone records covering roughly an hour before and after the crash. But they have refused to allow any inspection of the phone, calling it “overly intrusive” and an invasion of privacy.
This month, Williams’ lawyers hit back with a number of expanded claims, including that Linda Barson was largely responsible for the wreck at the intersection of Northlake Boulevard and BallenIsles Drive that resulted in her husband’s death.
No specifics were provided to support the distracted driving accusation, and Williams’ counsel hasn’t asked the court to force the Barsons to hand over their phone records or devices.
“I do not comment to the press about matters that are in litigation,” said Patrick Dahl, one of Williams’ lawyers.
Attorneys for Barson also declined to comment about any of the defenses outlined by Williams’ lawyers that accuse Linda and Jerome Barson of negligence. The Barson attorneys also had not filed a response as of Friday, records show.
Palm Beach Gardens police have not issued a final crash report, after an initial finding that Williams was at fault, and then a clarification she “lawfully entered” the intersection on a green light.
“The case is still open as the investigation is on-going,” Major Eduardo Guillen told the Sun Sentinel this week, adding the department’s work is expected to be over “in the near future.”
Williams’ first line of defense is that Linda Barson caused the crash by “driving carelessly and recklessly” and not stopping before entering the intersection.
Barson family attorney Michael Steinger has said the, “Barsons had a green light and lawfully entered the intersection.”
Next, Williams’ lawyers argue a degree of fault is on the mystery driver of the sedan that made the improper turn in front of Williams, “causing her to slow and stop in order to avoid contact.”
But the Barsons’ lawyer said such a claim can’t go to a jury because the driver of the third car hasn’t been identified.
In lawsuits involving traffic crashes, such third driver claims are filed under a common legal method, said Scott B. Smith, a West Palm Beach personal injury lawyer not involved in this case.
But it will be up to the judge whether Williams will be allowed at trial to blame a “phantom vehicle” and an unidentified driver, he said.
“The defense is going to have to show how they put in their due diligence to find the vehicle that left the scene of the crash,” Smith explained, adding the judge could first determine that such a defense is “legally insufficient” without the other driver being named.
Among Williams’ other positions is a repeated claim that Jerome Barson wasn’t wearing a seat belt and his injuries were caused by that “unreasonable failure.”
Yet in August, the estate’s lawyers argued: information from the Hyundai’s computers proves both occupants were wearing seat belts; experts who examined the passenger seat belt found it was used; and paramedics observed seat belt bruising on the victim’s body.
“All of the independent evidence conclusively proves that Mr. Barson was wearing his seat belt,” the pleading said.
Some facts are not in dispute: The crash happened at 1:13 p.m. June 9 near the gated entrance to the BallenIsles community where Williams, 37, lives while not away at tennis matches.
Williams was driving north approaching BallenIsles Drive and Barson was driving west on Northlake Boulevard, in the direction of the couple’s home in The Acreage.
A surveillance video released by police shows that after Williams entered the intersection, a southbound sedan made a left turn to head east on Northlake.
Police said Williams had to stop in the middle to prevent hitting the car, believed to be a Nissan, which turned in front of her. But that’s when Williams’ SUV was hit by the Barsons’ car, which by then had a green light.
Data from “black boxes” in both cars, including speeds at impact, hasn’t been released. A police report listed the speed of Williams’ Toyota at an estimated 5 mph and the Barson car at 25 mph.
Attorney Steinger has said the video evidence proves Williams was in the intersection during a red light, “violating the Barsons’ right of way.”
Barson, a grandfather of seven, died from complications involving blunt force trauma, according to an autopsy report released by the medical examiner’s office on Oct. 12.
Barson suffered lacerations to his spleen, along with pelvic and spinal fractures, and he developed multiple organ failure, the report said.
Seven days after Barson’s death, his estate sued Williams over her “negligent acts.”