Judge Says Rappers and State Share Blame in a Fatal Crush [1999-01-12]

Anthony Ramirez [New York Times]


In a blistering decision, a state judge has found New York State and two well-known rap performers equally responsible for a 1991 stampede at a City College gymnasium that killed nine young people and injured 29 others.

In a decision dated Dec. 31 but made public yesterday, Judge Louis C. Benza of the Court of Claims found that the organizers of the rap event, Sean Combs, a rap impresario and performer known as Puff Daddy, and Dwight Myers, a performer known as Heavy D, had ”proximately caused” the injuries and deaths and bore 50 percent of the responsibility.

Judge Benza assigned the balance of the blame to New York State, which runs the City University of New York, the operator of City College’s Nat Holman gymnasium, where the rap event was held.

The judge was ruling in a civil lawsuit for damages, filed by two men and two women injured in the melee. He has not yet determined the damage award, and has scheduled a meeting of the plaintiffs’ lawyers and representatives of the defendants for Jan. 29.

Most of the lawsuits filed by relatives of those killed in the stampede were settled in March for $3.8 million, in a case argued before a different judge.

Mark Goidell, a lawyer for Mr. Combs, said the ruling by Judge Benza did not apply to his client, but he declined further comment. Lawyers for the plaintiffs and the State Attorney General, however, disagreed, saying Mr. Combs was a party to the suit and was therefore liable. Alexander P. Hartnett, a lawyer for Mr. Myers, declined comment.

On Dec. 28, 1991, a large crowd gathered for a combination rap concert and celebrity basketball game at the 2,730-seat gymnasium on the campus, which is at 138th Street and Convent Avenue. Some ticket holders became unruly when they saw the doors being locked, fearing that they might not get in. The crowd surged forward against the gym’s barred doors, leading to the deaths and injuries.

Judge Benza based his 73-page decision on testimony heard at a five-day trial in March, at which Mr. Combs testified. Judge Benza spent much of his decision excoriating Mr. Combs, Mr. Myers and the university for the stampede and absolving the dead and injured of any ”culpable conduct” that might have contributed to the incident.

”It does not take an Einstein,” Judge Benza wrote at one point, ”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.”

Judge Benza said that after the stampede started, Mr. Combs’s employees blocked the gym doors with a table. Another of Mr. Combs’s employees, acting as security chief, Judge Benza wrote, ”in a desperate attempt to keep the people out of the gym, pulled out a gun and assailed the people with racial epithets.”

The suit was filed in the Court of Claims because it is the only court with jurisdiction when the State itself is a defendant. It is one of two major suits remaining against the state and the event organizers. A wrongful death suit is still pending in State Supreme Court.

Scott Brown, a spokesman for the State Attorney General’s office, which represented City College, said a total of about $3.8 million was paid last year to settle claims by relatives of those killed, of which 45 percent was paid by the state and 20 percent, or about $750,000, by Mr. Combs. In those settlements, Mr. Myers was held 17.5 percent responsible; the Pinkerton agency, a security Firm hired by Mr. Combs and Mr. Myers, 12.5 percent responsible, and New York City 5 percent responsible.

Peter A. De Filippis, a lawyer for Nicole Levy, one of the four injured, who was a 17-year-old college freshman at the time, said the latest ruling was significant because it put more responsibility on Mr. Combs. Since the City College concert, he has gone on to make millions in the rap music business.

”In previous settlements, Combs got off cheap,” said Mr. De Filippis.