Examining the legal cases against Travis Scott, Drake, Live Nation, and other parties sued over the deaths at the Houston festival.
The assignment of legal responsibility for the 10 deaths and scores of injuries that resulted when a densely packed crowd surged the stage during Travis Scott’s headlining set at his Astroworld festival in Houston on November 5 will not happen simply or quickly. In the week since the tragedy, at least 80 civil lawsuits have been filed in Harris County District Court, with defendants including Live Nation and a local promoter, festival location NRG Park and the county government body involved with managing it, a security contractor, a management company, Travis Scott himself, and Drake, who joined Scott onstage. The results will depend in large part on evidence turned up in investigations that are still ongoing. (Houston police have also opened a criminal investigation, but no charges have been filed yet.)
Still, it’s possible to make educated guesses about the breakdowns that may have contributed to the festival’s deadly turn, and the ways that the courts may assign culpability for them, based on the voluminous information and documentation that has turned up in news reporting and on social media, as well as the precedents of past lawsuits over concert injuries and deaths. Pitchfork spoke with several experts in live entertainment law, whose assessments of the situation are varied on one key point: Did the Astroworld fiasco result from failures of planning, security, and performer responsibility that were unique to this festival in particular, or were they a consequence of broader issues in the way festivals are operated in general?
Wherever they stand on that question, the experts agree that major judgements against the defendants in the Astroworld suits could leave lasting marks on the festival industry. Below, we take a look at the potential culpability of a few key parties.
Travis Scott and Drake
As the founder and public face of Astroworld and the person who was performing during the crowd surge, Travis Scott has already been named as a defendant in multiple lawsuits. Performers don’t always face liability for deaths and injuries at their concerts, according to Robert Mongeluzzi, an attorney who represents 17 people who were injured after a railing collapse at a 2016 Snoop Dogg concert in Camden, New Jersey. In that case, Mongeluzzi said, a jurisdiction issue prevented the plaintiffs from holding the rapper liable. But the multitude of Travis Scott suits could be different. Artist liability “is going to be front and center in this litigation,” Mongeluzzi said.
One issue Scott is likely to face is the history of unruly behavior from crowds at his concerts. A suit from Manuel Souza, an Astroworld attendee who claims he was trampled and sustained serious injuries at the festival, alleges “express encouragement of violence” from Scott at several past performances, including performances in 2015 and 2017 that resulted in his arrest for disorderly conduct and inciting a riot, respectively. At another 2017 concert, a fan was partially paralyzed after he was allegedly pushed from a balcony at New York City’s Terminal 5. In a video from the same concert, Scott can be heard saying “They gonna catch you, don’t be scared” from the stage before a different fan drops from the balcony to the crowd below.
“The first, most culpable entity in this is the talent,” said Stanley Kephart, a consultant and former police chief who specializes in crowd control and was the security administrator for the 1984 Olympic Games. “Travis Scott has a history and a background that identifies him as being an inciter of acts that by their very nature are a public endangerment.”
But one of the questions looming largest over the Astroworld tragedy is whether Scott knew the full extent of the chaos that was transpiring as he performed.
The artist is ultimately the last, best chance of stopping crowd surge and crowd violence,” said Mongeluzzi. “But one of the issues is that the artist has to know, and be able to be communicated with at the show.”
There are reports of Scott receiving onstage communication from people who appeared to be members of his team, and at least one video of the rapper briefly stopping his performance and calling for security because of an apparently incapacitated audience member. But it’s still unclear what was specifically communicated to Scott, and what party might have been formally responsible for relaying communication about an emergency to him. If it could be proven that someone else was negligent on that front, that could ease his liability.
Scott’s dual role as performer and host of the festival must be considered as well. “As a general proposition, it is fair to say that when an artist is curating or branding a festival, it may open them to additional liability,” said Tim Epstein, an attorney who has acted as general counsel for dozens of major festivals, including Pitchfork Music Festival. Unlike, say, Drake—who appeared as a guest performer during Scott’s set, and is named as a defendant in at least one lawsuit—Scott could potentially be found negligent in his responsibilities as an organizer and public face of the event, in addition to his behavior onstage.
Ultimately, proving artist liability in cases like these is a complicated matter. Owen Sloane, an attorney who has spent 45 years representing artists like Elton John and Bonnie Raitt, can recall only one incident when one of his artist clients was held personally responsible for an injury at one of their concerts: a drummer tossed a stick into the crowd, and an attendee claimed they were struck and hurt. That’s a concrete, easily provable claim of personal responsibility. In the case of Astroworld, it’s not quite so clear who threw the stick.
Live Nation and ScoreMore
After the artists, Live Nation is the next-most visible defendant in the dozens of lawsuits that have piled up after Astroworld. ScoreMore, a Texas-based promoter that Live Nation acquired in 2018, is also named as a defendant in multiple suits. As the promoters of Astroworld, Live Nation and ScoreMore were responsible for planning, staffing, putting up money, securing permits, finding vendors, communicating with local agencies—almost everything involved in making the festival happen aside from actually playing music. As such, their potential legal liability is broad.
There is strong precedent of liability for promoters in general, and for Live Nation in particular, when concerts go awry. NPR and the Houston Chronicle both compiled brief histories of the company’s past payouts to plaintiffs, and fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which include a $50 million settlement over a 2011 stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair that killed seven people. The company also faced a lawsuit following the overdose death of an attendee at the 2015 Hard Summer Music Festival, which was dismissed in a way that experts say indicated a confidential settlement with the victim’s family.
The particulars of Live Nation and ScoreMore’s potential culpability will depend on the evidence, and the plaintiffs’ ability to argue that the companies were lax in their preparations in areas like security and emergency response.
There are going to be contracts that are going to lay out the rights and responsibilities of everybody,” said Mongeluzzi. “What did Live Nation do, and what were their roles and responsibilities?”
A leaked 55-page operations plan for the festival, which appears to have been prepared by ScoreMore and was first published by CNN, lays out an elaborate chain of command and responsibility. The arrangement is typical of major festivals, with promoters handling top-level organization and contracting various specific tasks out to a network of vendors. Without a more detailed accounting—which might emerge in documents like contracts or correspondence between promoters and vendors, according to Mongeluzzi—it’s difficult to know where breakdowns might have occurred.
Allegations of negligence by a security contractor called Contemporary Services Corporation, hired as a vendor for Astroworld and named as a defendant in multiple lawsuits, provide an illustrative example of the complexities at play. Darius Williams, who responded to a job posting for temporary work as an Astroworld security guard for $10 to $13 per hour, told Rolling Stone that the training for new hires was rushed and haphazard, with “nothing regarding crowd control or what to do if a crowd surges,” and an instructor giving out answers to a test so that applicants wouldn’t fail. If claims like those can be proven in court, they could contribute to a case that CSC was negligent in its approach to festival security.
But given the chain of responsibility, they could also reflect poorly on Live Nation and ScoreMore, the companies that hired CSC. According to Kephart, parsing out the specifics of blame might involve examining the communications between the two entities. Those might show whether the security contractor misrepresented its ability to handle the job, or the promoter pressed forward with a potentially negligent contractor despite signs that their services wouldn’t be adequate. For instance, if a vendor claimed it had 700 officers ready to work when it only had 600, Kephart said, the vendor “would be responsible for that failure, not the promoter.”
At least one high-profile lawsuit, filed by San Antonio attorney Thomas J. Henry, names NRG Park, the venue of the festival, and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which manages the park on behalf of the county, as defendants. There is some precedent for venue culpability in concert injuries, such as the case of a fan who was injured by a stage dive from Skrillex at a Los Angeles concert in 2012, for which the Belasco Theater was ordered to pay $450,000 as part of larger damages totalling $4.5 million.
Henry told TIME that the liability of individual defendants in his suit will be determined by festival contracts. Much like the complex situation involving promoters and independent security, it’s difficult to know without seeing contracts what responsibilities were assigned to the operators of NRG Park itself, rather than to Live Nation or one of its contractors. In Mongeluzzi’s lawsuit over the 2016 Snoop Dogg railing collapse, he sought liability from the venue BB&T Pavilion because it owned and was responsible for the maintenance of the railing. But the assignment of liability in any given concert is “very case-specific depending on the facts,” he added.
Any potential liability assigned to the venue for Astroworld will likely have to do with the physical properties and layout of NRG Park itself. According to Kephart, there are ways that changes on that front could have eased the crowd surge situation and possibly prevented casualties. He advocates for festivals to include egress points for attendees on either side of the stage, so that a surging crowd has an escape route if the front row becomes pinned against the front security barrier. Mongeluzzi pointed to an apparent lack of barriers throughout the crowd at Astroworld that could have slowed and dispersed a surge, comparing it to the conspicuous presence of a barrier at the front of the stage. “The physical design prevents the artist from getting injured because of crowd surge or lack of crowd control,” he said. “But the audience themselves also need to be protected.” Again, it’s possible that in the case of Astroworld, planning for barriers fell to the promoter or some other entity, rather than NRG Park.
What happens next?
Mongeluzzi and Kephart both believe it is possible that extensive monetary damages for the Astroworld disaster could result in long-term changes in the way festivals are operated. “The threats of litigation and monetary damages cause changes in behavior,” Mongeluzzi said. “And concert promoters and people who provide security are going to have to adapt to make things safer. Or they’re going to get sued, and juries are going to hold them accountable, and it’s going to hurt them in their pocketbook.”
However, it’s important to note that Live Nation, Scott, and NRG Park are almost certainly insured with coverage that will pay for some significant portion of any potential damages. For instance, as TIME points out, $751 million of the $800 million in damages that MGM Resorts International paid out in a settlement over the 2017 Route 91 Harvest mass shooting in Las Vegas was ultimately covered by insurers.
One way Mongeluzzi believes festivals should change after Astroworld is by reconsidering the industry-standard practice of standing-room-only general admission tickets. Seats, and the aisles and handrails between them—where security officers are often deployed at seated concerts—can act as barriers to movement and reduce the chances of crowd surge, he said.
Of course, assigned seating would also profoundly alter the experience of attending a festival, where audience members are used to roaming freely between multiple stages, making the grounds into a kind of giant unstructured playground. Tim Epstein diverges sharply from Mongeluzzi on the issue. “Millions of shows have taken place that have open seating and general admission, without incident,” he said. “We are not going to have a situation where we’re banning that. I think that would be a mistake.”
The conflict of opinion on this issue between Epstein, who represents festivals, and Mongeluzzi, who represents personal injury victims, is in some ways not surprising. But it is also indicative of the larger unresolved question of whether the failures of Astroworld are particular to Astroworld or rather a broad referendum on festival culture.
“We cannot paint with a broad brush here,” says Epstein. Mongeluzzi disagrees: “The industry has probably dodged a bunch of bullets in the past and it didn’t this time. This should be a wake up call to the artists, the promoters, and the people who profit from putting these on.”