Venus Williams & Preserving Evidence

I don’t follow celebrity “news.”  Several readers know that and contacted me about the Venus Williams wrongful death lawsuit filed in Florida last week.  Normally that wouldn’t merit a blog post except a comment attributed to the plaintiffs’ lawyer.  He reportedly stated:

“At this point we are attempting to both preserve the evidence and gain access to the evidence,” Steinger said. “There are video cameras that were placed at guard houses where Ms. Williams lives and police have refused after multiple requests to turn those over to us and we would like to see visual portrayal of the accident on those videos.  They [police] have impounded all of the vehicles and have impeded our ability to conduct our investigation and be able to move forward.”[1]

That comment does trigger a blog post.

Fatal Investigations 101: Your PI lawsuit does not matter.

I am personally involved in fatal accident scene investigations on a regular basis.[2]  Based upon my own experience, let me tell you the police care only about conducting a thorough and complete criminal investigation that will support a finding of probable cause to file charges and support a conviction, if the evidence leads them in that direction.  That mentality is supremely frustrating when attempting to also conduct an investigation for my client and the police have gathered most, if not all, of the evidence.  However, that mentality is probably the right priority from a societal standpoint.  If a crime has been committed, that should take precedence over the civil repercussions.  Applied to Ms. Williams, I have no idea if a crime was committed, nor is it my job to determine if one was.  However, it is normal and unsurprisingly that police will not provide evidence to the plaintiffs’ attorney.

Second, filing a civil lawsuit is not going to change law enforcement’s willingness to cooperate.  A lawsuit may certainly be filed the information may be subpoenaed, but police can easily move to quash it as interfering or pertaining to with an ongoing investigation or criminal matter.  I am aware of cases locally where that situation has played out, to the parties’ mutual frustration.

So why file the lawsuit only two weeks after the accident when evidence is unavailable to the parties?  I have a few ideas, but none pertain to discovery so I will refrain from expressing them here.

Rule 27: It won’t help.

On rare occasion, a party will argue that they need discovery to determine whether a civil lawsuit would be merited.  That argument often relies upon Rule 27.  I have previously discussed how courts routinely reject that argument and lawsuits based upon it.[3]  Assuming Florida has an equivalent to Rule 27 and the lawsuit was filed with the idea of using it to conduct pre-suit discovery, the complaint against Ms. Williams may be subject to challenge.

[1] Eduardo Gonzalez, Venus Williams facing lawsuit by family of man who died in fatal car accident, LA Times, June 30, 2017.
[2] You haven’t lived until the police won’t let you leave the scene until they spray biocide on your shoes.
[3] April 28, 2014; January 15, 2015.