More than a dozen lawsuits have already been filed against Travis Scott after eight people died and dozens were injured by a surge of spectators at the rapper’s Astroworld Festival concert in Texas on Friday night.
Even if Scott is less likely to be found liable than other defendants, the smart strategy by those seeking damages is still to name him as a defendant.
These complaints could well be just the first round of suits alleging that Scott and the concert organizers were negligent. Making the case against the organizations will be easier than finding Scott himself liable. Despite the artist’s center-stage role in the performance, he is not necessarily the most responsible party — or maybe even one of them.
In Texas, as in most jurisdictions, the people in charge of a concert have a duty to the invitees, in this case audience members, to exercise reasonable care to protect them against an unreasonably dangerous condition on the premises, so long as the defendants knew or should have known about that dangerous condition. (In a statement, Live Nation, an event organizer behind the festival, said the company will "address all legal matters at the appropriate time.")
So surely the event organizers had a duty to the concertgoers — but does the performer? When asked by Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “TODAY” show if Scott should have stopped the concert when he saw what was happening, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña responded: "Absolutely. Look: We all have a responsibility. Everybody at that event has a responsibility. Starting from the artist on down."
But at a concert, does security really start “from the artist on down”? Doesn’t security start with the people in charge of security?
Similarly, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said he met with Scott and his head of security prior to the event to express his concerns regarding public safety. But ordinarily, the performing artist isn’t the person with control over the crowd, and a pre-show conversation with the police doesn’t necessarily change that.
Security is more likely the responsibility of event organizers and the venue itself: At least one Texas court opinion suggests that promoters and performers at events like these are not responsible if they lack control over the venue, the seating arrangements and security.
That doesn’t mean Finner’s meeting with Scott and his head of security is irrelevant. It may be very relevant depending on the facts that emerge. Even if Scott didn’t have responsibility for crowd control at the venue, for example, Scott could still be liable if he actually did something to incite the crowd surge.
At least one lawsuit against him is trying to strengthen that assertion by pointing to the performer’s history of troubled concerts and the rough behavior among his fans in attendance. Scott was arrested in 2015 and charged with disorderly conduct at a concert in Chicago after police there said he told the crowd to ignore security and urged audience members to rush the stage. He later pleaded guilty to reckless conduct. In 2017, he was arrested on suspicion of inciting a riot at a concert in Arkansas. Scott pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, the lowest charge, and two misdemeanor charges were dismissed.
That prior conduct, however, is irrelevant if he did nothing to incite the crowd crush at this particular concert. The same lawsuit alleges that, in response to fan complaints about the concert quickly selling out back in May, Scott tweeted, “WE STILL SNEAKING THE WILD ONES IN. !!!!!!” But the plaintiffs are going to need more than that to show Scott caused this particular surge. Though the tweet could be considered a tacit admission that Scott planned to oversell — and overcrowd — the event, it could also be chalked up to just hyping the concert.
Other accounts say Scott, after seeing an ambulance at the festival on Friday, urged his fans to make “the ground shake.” If true, that’s better evidence of incitement — but it could also be Scott asking his fans to cheer, or some other innocuous request.
Even if evidence emerges that someone informed Scott of the evolving crises on the field, the question then arises: Is the performer the person who makes the call to stop the concert? Do they even have the power to stop a crowd with their voice? Would it be enough to absolve Scott if he had tried to calm everyone down but failed? What if the artist can’t see the surge from the stage?
There’s a famous clip from years ago of Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl stopping mid-song during a concert and yelling at an audience member whom he supposedly saw fighting with other people. Kudos to Grohl for being willing to stop a show to stop fights — but would anyone have said it was Grohl’s responsibility to conduct security sweeps of the venue, during a concert, while singing and playing an instrument? Probably not. Strumming a guitar and singing require a lot of concentration, which is why security is left to the professionals, not the musicians.
Now, if performers knowingly and intentionally incite crowd surges, that’s a very different situation. Knowing incitement of a crowd crush blasts right past negligence and is more than reckless enough to qualify for criminal liability. Any performer who does so should be held criminally and civilly responsible for resulting damages.
Scott’s past history could be relevant in a case in which he was found to have knowingly incited a dangerous surge, demonstrating that he knew that he had the power to encourage a crowd surge from past experience. But absent actual proof that he called for a stampede, his status as a performer arguably puts him far down on the chain of command when it comes to crowd security.
What about Scott’s offer to pay for the mental health expenses or funeral costs of victims? Will that be seen by the courts as an admission of responsibility? Not likely. In Texas, as in most jurisdictions, a defendant’s offer to pay medical, hospital or similar expenses resulting from an injury is not admissible evidence proving the defendant’s liability. Scott’s offers are a perfect example of the public policy behind this rule: We want to encourage wealthy defendants to offer to pay medical bills without fearing harsh legal consequences.
Even if Scott is less likely to be found liable than other defendants, the smart strategy by those seeking damages is still to name him as a defendant in the Astroworld lawsuits. In a case where many companies and individuals may have contributed to the tragedy, it’s wise to name them all as defendants at the beginning of the suit.
That’s especially true given that the case law for assigning liability is so jumbled. In “Crowd Crush: How the Law Leaves American Crowds Unprotected,” Tracy Hresko Pearl wrote in the Kentucky Law Journal that “despite the frequency with which crowd crush injuries occur,” court decisions about liability for these injuries are “remarkably sparse and inconsistent.” Unless legislatures address the issue of crowd management at music and sporting events, these cases will continue to be so.