The Legal Aftermath of the Astroworld Tragedy
Posted: December 6, 2021
On Friday, November 5, 2021, the third annual Astroworld Festival welcomed 50,000 people to the NRG Park stadium complex in Houston, Texas. Travis Scott, a rapper and record producer, had created the event in 2018 as a way to celebrate his hometown. Scott is known for his high-octane live shows and punk-oriented hip-hop anthems, earning a reputation for performances that feature incredible stage production and chaotic, wild energy from his fans.
The first two Astroworld festivals drew large, rowdy crowds, and the third iteration in 2021 was no different. But when the packed and riotous event took a dark turn, the conditions at Astroworld resulted in 10 deaths, 25 hospitalizations, and hundreds of injuries.
After multiple opening acts, Scott took to the main stage at 9 p.m., escalating the standing-room-only crowd into crazed excitement. According to Fire Chief Samuel Peña, fans surged toward the stage from the sides, leaving little room for those in the front middle section to move, let alone breathe. People began passing out, and around 9:30 p.m., an ambulance was spotted making its way into the crowd. Videos show fans blocking and dancing on emergency vehicles, seemingly unaware or uncaring of the tragedy unfolding near the stage.
More video footage shows Scott spotting some emergency flashing lights, mentioning it from the stage, and waiting for a few moments before encouraging two members of his entourage to dive off the stage to crowd surf.
Yet more videos have circulated showing concertgoers screaming for Scott and the concert organizers to “stop the show” as the performance continued to go on. Scott did pause at least once to direct security towards some people that appeared unconscious. It is unclear how much could be seen from the stage, but city officials declared that the show was a “mass casualty event” fully 30 minutes before Scott ended the concert at approximately 10:10 p.m. Houston’s police chief, Troy Finner, told The New York Times that officials were concerned stopping the show early would incite more violence and animosity. It has also been reported that Finner personally went to Scott’s trailer before the event began to voice his concerns about potential safety issues and crowd control.
Can Travis Scott Be Held Personally Responsible?
The history of mass deaths at music events has shown that it is quite rare for the onstage performer to be held liable. For example, in 2000, nine people were trampled to death at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark while Pearl Jam was performing, and the band was not sued. When 11 people died in 1979 at a The Who concert at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, the lawsuits that followed did not include the band as defendants.
However, lawyers involved in the lawsuits against Scott are pointing out that while it is not uncommon for people to pass out at shows, Scott has a history of recklessly riling up crowds, including being arrested in Chicago and Arkansas for encouraging concertgoers to ignore security and storm his stage.
In 2017, Kyle Green, a fan attending a Travis Scott concert in New York City, says that during the show, he was pushed from a third-floor balcony, leaving him partially paralyzed. In a video taken from that same show, Scott is heard encouraging a different fan climbing down the balcony to jump by saying, “They going to catch you, don’t be scared.” Green’s case is still awaiting resolution within New York State’s Supreme Court.
In the case of the most recent Astroworld tragedies, it is unclear how aware Scott was of the dire situation unfolding in the crowd in front of him. In an Instagram video posted after the show, Scott said, “Any time I could make out anything that was going on, I’d stop the show and help them get the help they need. I could never imagine the severity of the situation.”
Sentiments aside, nearly 200 civil lawsuits have been filed against Scott and other defendants. For one, Texas trial attorney Thomas J. Henry has filed a $2 billion lawsuit on behalf of 282 victims seeking damages from a list of defendants, including Travis Scott, Live Nation, NRG Stadium, and Apple Music.
At first glance, it may seem unusual to include Scott among the potentially liable parties. So what is the difference between this situation and other concert mass deaths in which performing artists weren’t held responsible? In this case, Scott wasn’t just a performer but also a supervisor, organizer, and founder of the event, leaving him personally vulnerable to lawsuits.
Tim Epstein, an attorney who acts as general counsel for numerous major music festivals, says Scott can potentially be found negligent in his responsibilities as the organizer, the public face of the event, as well as his behavior onstage.
After Scott, Live Nation is the next primarily named defendant, followed by ScoreMore, a Texas-based promoter that Live Nation acquired in 2018. As the Astroworld promoters, both companies were responsible for planning, staffing, securing permits, finding vendors, putting up the money, and communicating with local agencies. In short, everything it takes to make the festival happen other than actually playing music. A large part of the lawsuits will be obtaining the festival’s contracts to determine the liability of the respective parties and the insurance contracts that were put into place.
The New York Times reported that the concert’s organizers presented a security plan before the event showing they were well aware of the potential risks. “…multiple alcohol/drug-related incidents, possible evacuation needs, and the ever-present threat of a mass casualty situation” were all identified as key concerns. According to the L.A. Times, there was much more security this time compared to previous years. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that over 500 police officers and 755 security guards were provided by Live Nation and assigned to the event.
“The defendants stood to make an exorbitant amount of money off of this event, and they still chose to cut corners, cut costs, and put attendees at risk,” said attorney Thomas Henry, who is involved in the $2 billion suit. “My clients want to ensure the defendants are held responsible for their actions, and they want to send the message to all performers, event organizers, and promoters that what happened at Astroworld cannot happen again.”
Can Criminal Charges Be Filed?
Civil charges only require a preponderance of the evidence, which means the burden of proof is met when the party pressing charges convince the fact finder that there is a 51% chance or greater than what they claim is true.
As civil lawsuits continue to be filed, authorities are still investigating whether or not to press criminal charges against Scott and others. Criminal charges are much harder to convict because they require evidence that is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning the evidence is so strong there is zero uncertainty as to whether the defendant committed the alleged crime or not.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for an independent investigation, arguing that the Houston Police Department might have been at fault as well. In a two-hour discussion during an executive session on November 15, Hidalgo did not get the three votes she needed to move forward with her proposal. Instead, there was a unanimous vote for Harris County Administer David Berry to conduct a review of the fire, life, security, and safety plans of all scheduled outdoor concerts that are to be taking place at the NRG Park property.
Regardless of how many lawsuits and charges are filed and brought against Scott and the rest of the concert’s organizers, Henry says it is likely that the cases will drag on for years. But he and many others hope that from this disaster, more protective measures will be developed and implemented by concert companies to protect crowds better in the future.