The Legal Fallout of the Travis Scott Astroworld Fatalities
At about 9 PM on Friday, November 5th, 2021, superstar rapper Travis Scott (Real Name: Jacques Bermon Webster II) took to the stage at NRG park in Houston, Texas for his Astroworld Show. As he and global superstar Drake entered the stage, the crowd surged uncontrollably. As the crowd pushed towards the front, 8 people – including a 14 and a 16 year old – were fatally crushed in the chaos. Hundreds of additional people were reportedly injured by the crowd swell. In the aftermath, the Houston Police have labeled the incident a “mass casualty event.” The legal fallout has been particularly swift, and our team of personal injury lawyers at Sawan & Sawan have analyzed the wider context to help make sense of what justice may look like for surviving families of the deceased.
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Who Could Be Held Responsible for Concert Injuries?
It’s rather common for personal injury victims to name multiple parties in a lawsuit. In the instance of Astroworld, the following parties could be sued:
- Musicians. The musicians performing on stage at concerts are often sued for injuries that occur. While it depends in some part on their actions or omissions at the scene of the injuries, they may be alleged to have “incited” violence. While free speech protections are broad in America, it requires a very fact specific inquiry to determine if speech is protected or falls under incitement.
- Security Companies. Venues, especially at larger events like Astroworld, often contract out with big companies to provide security. In other instances, musical acts may even have their own private security that formulates plans and oversees staff. Many times, these security companies will be target defendants in these cases.
- Venue Owners. Depending on the circumstances of a particular case, venue owners can be sued for fostering or creating a dangerous condition on the property.
- Concert Promoters. In many instances, including the Astroworld tragedy, the number of concert goers greatly contributes to the dangerous condition. In these instances, concert promoters such as live nation can be sued for permitting so many people to attend.
Context Matters in Personal Injury Cases
In personal injury cases – and especially in wrongful death cases – context matters. In general, tort law is concerned with establishing a duty that is owed to injured individuals, and holding parties accountable when they breach that duty and cause damage. This duty changes widely depending on the context of the injury. In general, a person has a duty to act as a “reasonably prudent person under the same or similar circumstances.” As a result, context is everything in personal injury cases.
Which brings us to Astroworld. 2 years ago, when Travis Scott last had an Astroworld concert. Officials overseeing that event learned that the crowds of adoring fans could be uniquely difficult to control – a peculiarity that Travis Scott himself frequently traded on. The rapper affectionately refers to his fans as “Ragers” – in large part due to the aggressive energy they are known for. In 2019, crowds rushed past entry gates, overwhelming staff and injuring 3 people.
In 2017, the Rapper was arrested for inciting a riot, disorderly conduct and endangering the welfare of a minor by inviting fans to bypass security and rush the stage at a show at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers, Arkansas. He had to pay more than $6,000 to two people who were injured at the gig and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
In 2015, he pled guilty to reckless conduct when he told the crowd to put a “middle finger up to security right now” after his set lasted only 5 minutes before the police intervened. He pled guilty in that instance as well and was placed on Court supervision for one year.
In the lead up to this year’s tragic event, the Houston Police chief has stated that he expressed unique concerns about the energy of the crowd. In part, this was due to the confluence of events – the underlying energy that makes up the fanbase coupled with the anticipation caused by pandemic era idling of live music. Fans flew from all corners of the Country to see the concert, paying hundreds of dollars for tickets.
The show ended about 30 minutes earlier than expected, but the performer notably performed for almost 40 minutes during and after a “mass casualty event.” Social media lit up with victim and witness accounts, as well as scores of videos of the performer rapping while first responders and concert goers were trying to render life saving aid to the crowd.
One piece of evidence lending context to this incident is a now deleted May 2021 tweet authored by Travis Scott which says “WE STILL SNEAKING THE WILD ONES IN.” in response to comments that the show was sold out. Many in the media are pointing to this to show that the artist fostered or encouraged an environment that led to the tragic deaths and injuries.
The Case for Negligence
Negligence is a legal term of art that refers to careless behavior. Personal injury cases derived from the basic ideas of tort law which were adopted from the English common law system. It has evolved over the last several hundred years through legislative enactment and common law jurisprudence. Tort law can impact every aspect of our daily life. Businesses harm customers, people injure one another, or employees are hurt in the workplace. These are just a few of the personal injury claims which allow resolution through the tort system. The goal of tort law is to hold the defendant accountable for his/her actions when someone is found to be negligent.
To be successful in a personal injury case, a plaintiff must prove by a “preponderance of the evidence” that she was hurt by the negligence of the defendant. She must provide evidence that it is more likely than not that the facts support her story. The facts must show the duty, breach, causation and damages that the plaintiff suffered. This is where context comes in.
First and foremost, according to the Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena, it was incredibly difficult for anyone other than Travis Scott or the concert promoters to stop the show once trouble arose. Since he was holding the crowd’s attention and the microphone, the Fire Chief made clear that he had the power to stop the show. However, without notice of an issue, the law may now task him with that duty. More evidence as to what he knew and when will need to be elicited before a legal opinion can be issued on this point.
Secondly, the venue and concert organizers will likely come under intense scrutiny. A recently unearthed emergency plan containing a detailed approach to medical response. In it, it said:
“the potential for multiple alcohol/drug related incidents, possible evacuation needs, and the ever-present threat of a mass casualty situation are identified as key concerns.”
While state law vary a bit on this point, the law in general raises a heightened duty on any business owner that knows of a risk. In these circumstances, a reasonably prudent person would take extra precautions to mitigate the potential for harm. In other places of the report, it advised staff to “notify Event Control of a suspected deceased victim utilizing the code ‘Smurf’,” the report read. “Never use the term ‘dead’ or ‘deceased’ over the radio.” It was not clear if that protocol was followed.
The morning of Astroworld, concert goers packed the opening gate in the early morning hours. When staff arrived at 3 am, 1000’s had already showed up at the gate. When the gate was opened at 10 am, people chaotically ran in, raising some initial red flags about the nature of the crowd. While the concert organizers had prepared for some medical need, it appears that this was grossly underestimated. A 22-page medical plan called for a main medical tent with two emergency room physicians, six registered nurses, two paramedics and nine emergency medical technicians, along with people to track and triage patients. There were 30 cots, 12 tables and two wheelchairs in the main tent -as well as a number of smaller medical tents positioned around the event. However, as the number of individuals in need of medical attention grew to 300 or more, it appears the limited staff was overwhelmed and unable to document treatment.
According to video of the event, the music was paused around 9:30 pm when an ambulance made its way through the crowd. It took about 10 minutes for the ambulance to make it to the patient. Two men appeared on stage when the music stopped , only to be shooed away by Mr. Scott who could be heard saying “y’all know what you came to do”, make the “ground shake.”
On Sunday, the Texas Law Firm of Thomas J. Henry tweeted that the had filed one of the first lawsuits in the Travis Scott Astroworld tragedy. In the lawsuit, the complaint alleges that Travis Scott and Drake “incited mayhem” prior to the deaths and injuries. Texas-resident Krisitan Paredes, who is also suing concert organizers Live Nation and the venue, “felt an immediate push” at the front of the general admission section as Travis Scott got on stage, the complaint said. The suit, filed in Houston’s Harris County court, claims the Rapper “had incited mayhem and chaos at prior events” and that “defendants knew or should have known of (Scott’s) prior conduct.” In other words, context matters and the context here shows that Travis Scott and the event organizers knew this type of tragedy was possible, perhaps even likely.
Other Concert Injury Lawsuits
Unfortunately, the Astroworld injuries are far from the only time a situation like this has harmed concert goers. A brief review of some other instances throughout history shows what the legal fallout often is.
- 2003 Station Nightclub Fire. 100 people were killed in 2003 when a nightclub in Rhode Island erupted in flames. The fire began when the pyrotechnics for the rock band the Great White ignited flammable sound-absorbing foam around the stage and the club’s walls. The fire also injured some 200 people. Involved in that lawsuit were the manufacturers of the soundproofing material, the club owners, the owners of the building, an alarm company and more.
- Snoop Dogg at BB&T Pavilion in New Jersey. On August 5th, 2016, a 16 year old was injured when a railing that she was leaning on collapsed, sending her falling over 10 feet to the concrete ground at BB&T pavilion in Camden, New Jersey. Snoop Dogg was among 10 defendants named in the ensuing lawsuit, which included the pavilion and Live Nation.
- Lamb of God Spinal Injury Lawsuit. A fan of the band Lamb of God sued Live Nation after sustaining a spinal cord injury after being trampled during a November 2012 show at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, Connecticut. In that suit, the fan claimed that Live Nation knew or should have known that concert goers at the Lamb of God event were more prone to altercations. In this suit, the band itself was not sued directly.
How Far is Too Far?
When is Speech Incitement?
Could Travis Scott or the Concert Company Face Criminal Charges?
On November 8th, 2021, the Houston Police reported that they are in the early stages of a criminal investigation regarding the Astroworld fatalities. Eight people, ranging from 14 to 27 died in the tragic event. The same day, the Mayor of Houston – Sylvester Turner – stated “There’s a criminal investigation underway at this point in time…a detailed review of everything that has taken place. It will take probably weeks if not longer, and I’m sure that what took place will be looked at from many different angles, as well as it should.” The reality is that, like in 2015 and 2017, charges for inciting a riot or other disorderly conduct charges could be leveled against Scott. However, in order to prevail, prosecutors will likely need to show overwhelming evidence that the rapper knew of and ignored people at risk of death – while urging the crowd on. At the end of the day – the simple fact is that the a criminal case is much weaker than a civil case at the time of this writing.
Dennis E. Sawan
Licensed in Ohio and Florida
Dennis P. Sawan
Licensed in Ohio and Georgia
Christopher A. Sawan
Licensed in Ohio and Michigan
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