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City Held in Suit Over Fatal Stampede [1998-02-19]

Bill Alden [New York Law Journal]
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2/19/98 N.Y.L.J. 1, (col. 3)
Volume 219, Number 32
Thursday, February 19, 1998

By Bill Alden

NEW YORK CITY may be held liable for a stampede at a 1991 charity basketball and rap music event at City College of New York which left nine people dead, a Manhattan judge has declared.

Although finding that the City had no “special duty” to the concertgoers as a result of providing police protection for the ill-fated event, Supreme Court Justice Louis B. York said that there could be liability on other grounds.

The decision will be published tomorrow.

There are cases that have “established liability without the showing of a special relationship between the police and an injured plantiff,” wrote Justice York in Levy v. State of New York. “A municipality can expose itself to liability for acts of affirmative negligence once it commits itself to an activity.”
The December 1991 tragedy, which garnered national headlines, was triggered when an overflow crowd of 5,000 struggled to get into the Nat Holman Gymnasium on City College’s upper Manhattan campus for an event promoted by rap superstar Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.

After one entrance to the gym was closed, the crowd massed in the lobby, surged past a barricade and in the process, pushed people up against closed doors to the gym. Nine people were crushed to death and many others were also seriously injured.

Security for the event had been provided by CCNY, the New York City Police Department and Pinkerton’s Inc., a private security firm.

A report issued by then-Deputy Mayor Milton Mollen in early 1992, found that police, college officials, event organizers and the crowd all had shown an “abysmal failure of responsibility” in the events leading to the deaths.

The police, in particular, were criticized for using “highly questionable judgment” for ignoring a commotion inside the gym and for clinging to its rules that kept its forces separate from the private security inside.

The families of the deceased filed multimillion dollar wrongful death suits against the State in the Court of Claims and against the City, the college and Pinkerton’s, among others, in State Supreme Court.

In addition, suits were filed in both courts by those injured in the crush, including Nicole Levy, the plaintiff in the suit before Justice York.

Claiming that the police on site were performing a governmental function, the City contended that it was shielded from liability in the Supreme Court action on the grounds of sovereign immunity.

The plaintiffs, however, asserted that the police’s significant involvement at the scene combined with its alleged negligent handling of the situation rendered the City potentially accountable.

Justice York, noting that the police had allegedly delayed calling for backup and that officers were pulled out of the lobby at critical moments, said the question of negligence is “certainly a viable one.”

In view of the contradictory versions of some of the “crucial” facts of the tragedy, Justice York concluded that the contentions raised by the plaintiffs must be resolved by a jury.

While many claims have been settled, a trial date for the remaining cases in the Court of Claims has been set for mid-March. No trial date has been set for the claims before Justice York.

Sherri L. Plotkin of Barton & Zasky represented the plaintiffs’ committee. Peter DeFilippis & Associates represented Ms. Levy.

Michael Mervis of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker represented Pinkerton’s.

Assistant New York Attorney General Michael Rosas represented the State. Assistant Corporation Counsel Victoria Scalzo represented the City.

Copyright 1998 by the New York Law Publishing Company