VH1 Best Of ’99: Puff Daddy Heavy D Found Liable For Deadly Stampede [1999-01-12]
Judge’s decision paves way for financial claims against hip-hoppers involved in 1991 tragedy.
by Staff Writer Chris Nelson and Contributing Editor Randy Reiss
Hip-hop producer Sean “Puffy” Combs and rapper Heavy D are equally responsible, along with the City University of New York, for a stampede that killed nine people and injured 29 at a charity basketball game in 1991, a judge has ruled.
The decision, filed Dec. 31 by Court of Claims Judge Louis C. Benza in Albany, N.Y., but not made public until Monday, stemmed from a lawsuit filed against CUNY by injured survivors of the incident.
In his ruling, the judge wrote, “It does not take an Einstein to know that young people attending a rap concert camouflaged as a ‘celebrity basketball game,’ who have paid as much as $20 a ticket, would not be very happy and easy to control if they were unable to gain admission to the event because it was oversold.”
In his 73-page decision, the judge also called into question Combs’ testimony that he was trapped in the stampede and tried to help people caught in a stairwell.
While Benza’s ruling specifically allowed four plaintiffs to seek financial damages from CUNY and the state of New York, which operates the university, it also opened a door for survivors to pursue financial claims against Combs and Heavy D (born Dwight Myers) in a separate case, a plaintiff’s lawyer said.
“This is the exact outcome we were hoping for,” said Peter De Filippis, lawyer for Nicole Levy, who was hurt in the stampede and whose best friend was killed.
In response to the ruling, Combs issued a statement Tuesday (Jan. 12): “There is not a day that passes that I do not regret the fact that I was a promoter of this tragic event. … I have lived with the horror of that night for the last seven years. But my pain is nothing compared to what the victims’ families have had to face.”
He added that the ruling “represents another step towards a resolution of the legal proceedings. But I know that when you lose a loved one, the suffering doesn’t end. I just keep praying that God will give the families the strength to bear it.”
Representatives for Heavy D could not be reached by press time.
CUNY officials had no immediate comment beyond that they were reviewing Benza’s decision and that “CUNY now has policies in place to ensure that college events are conducted in a manner consistent with public-safety requirements.”
The tragedy unfolded after some ticket-holders to the event — a charity basketball game featuring rap stars, organized by Combs and Heavy D — feared they wouldn’t get in because tickets had been oversold to the 2,700-seat Nat Holman Gymnasium. In reaction, they rushed a gym door as it was being locked. Trying to maintain control, a security team provided by Combs braced the door shut with a table, Benza wrote.
“By closing the only open door giving access to the gym, Combs’ forces, who were fully aware of the crowd uncontrollably pouring down the stairwell, created something akin to a ‘dike,’ forcing the people together like ‘sardines,’ squashing out life’s breath from young bodies,” the judge wrote.
Combs, who recorded the song “Come With Me” with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, testified last year that he was trapped in the stampede. But according to Benza’s decision, witnesses could not corroborate that Combs was in the stairwell with them, and police officer Sean Harris testified that when he broke through the blocked door he saw Combs in the gym with money in hand.
“This revelation,” the judge wrote, “places a strain on the credibility of Combs’ testimony that he was caught up in the melee and attempted to help the people who were trapped in the stairwell.”
Combs’ lawyer, Kenneth Meiselas, said in a statement Tuesday (Jan. 12): “It could not be expected that Mr. Combs would be exonerated in a forum in which he had no opportunity to defend himself, to present witnesses, or even to cross-examine witnesses who testified against him. These of course are fundamental rights that anybody would expect from our justice system, but which Mr. Combs did not receive in the Court of Claims, simply because he was not a party to that lawsuit.”
De Filippis said the plaintiffs went to the Court of Claims, which handles cases in which the state is a defendant, because Combs, Heavy D and CUNY all pointed accusatory fingers at each other. Combs, for example, testified in March that he hired 20 security guards for the event — in addition to the school’s normal security complement — and that he was not responsible for the deaths and injuries. He blamed a shortage of crowd-control efforts by CUNY.
Benza, however, ruled that Combs and Heavy D were equally responsible for the tragedy, as was CUNY.
De Filippis said his client now can seek punitive damages against Combs and Heavy D. “This was the legal hurdle we needed to overcome,” he said.
According to the New York Post, several suits against Heavy D and Combs are pending in Manhattan Supreme Court.
Several wrongful-death suits filed against CUNY have been settled, according to court documents.