Best Of ’99: Puff Daddy, Heavy D Found Liable For Deadly Stampede

Judge's decision paves way for financial claims against hip-hoppers involved in 1991 tragedy.

[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and writers. This story originally ran on Tuesday, Jan. 12.]

Hip-hop producer Sean “Puffy” Combs and rapper Heavy D are equally responsible,
along with the City University of New York, for a stampede that killed nine people and
injured 29 at a charity basketball game in 1991, a judge has ruled.

The decision, filed Dec. 31 by Court of Claims Judge Louis C. Benza in Albany, N.Y., but
not made public until Monday, stemmed from a lawsuit filed against CUNY by injured
survivors of the incident.

In his ruling, the judge wrote, “It does not take an Einstein 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.”

In his 73-page decision, the judge also called into question Combs’ testimony that he
was trapped in the stampede and tried to help people caught in a stairwell.

While Benza’s ruling specifically allowed four plaintiffs to seek financial damages
from CUNY and the state of New York, which operates the university, it also opened a
door for survivors to pursue financial claims against Combs and Heavy D (born Dwight
Myers) in a separate case, a plaintiff’s lawyer said.

“This is the exact outcome we were hoping for,” said Peter De Filippis, lawyer for Nicole
Levy, who was hurt in the stampede and whose best friend was killed.

In response to the ruling, Combs issued a statement Tuesday (Jan. 12): “There is not a
day that passes that I do not regret the fact that I was a promoter of this tragic event. … I
have lived with the horror of that night for the last seven years. But my pain is nothing
compared to what the victims’ families have had to face.”

He added that the ruling “represents another step towards a resolution of the legal
proceedings. But I know that when you lose a loved one, the suffering doesn’t end. I just
keep praying that God will give the families the strength to bear it.”

Representatives for Heavy D could not be reached by press time.

CUNY officials had no immediate comment beyond that they were reviewing
Benza’s decision and that “CUNY now has policies in place to ensure that college
events are conducted in a manner consistent with public-safety requirements.”

The tragedy unfolded after some ticket-holders to the event — a charity basketball game
featuring rap stars, organized by Combs and Heavy D — feared they wouldn’t get in
because tickets had been oversold to the 2,700-seat Nat Holman Gymnasium. In
reaction, they rushed a gym door as it was being locked. Trying to maintain control, a
security team provided by Combs braced the door shut with a table, Benza wrote.

“By closing the only open door giving access to the gym, Combs’ forces, who were fully
aware of the crowd uncontrollably pouring down the stairwell, created something akin to
a ‘dike,’ forcing the people together like ‘sardines,’ squashing out life’s breath from
young bodies,” the judge wrote.

Combs, who recorded the song “Come With Me” (RealAudio
excerpt
) with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, testified last year
that he was trapped in the stampede. But according to Benza’s decision, witnesses could
not corroborate that Combs was in the stairwell with them, and police officer Sean Harris
testified that when he broke through the blocked door he saw Combs in the gym with
money in hand.

“This revelation,” the judge wrote, “places a strain on the credibility of Combs’ testimony
that he was caught up in the melee and attempted to help the people who were trapped
in the stairwell.”

Combs’ lawyer, Kenneth Meiselas, said in a statement Tuesday (Jan. 12): “It could not be
expected that Mr. Combs would be exonerated in a forum in which he had no opportunity
to defend himself, to present witnesses, or even to cross-examine witnesses who
testified against him. These of course are fundamental rights that anybody would expect
from our justice system, but which Mr. Combs did not receive in the Court of Claims,
simply because he was not a party to that lawsuit.”

De Filippis said the plaintiffs went to the Court of Claims, which handles cases in which
the state is a defendant, because Combs, Heavy D and CUNY all pointed accusatory
fingers at each other. Combs, for example, testified in March that he hired 20 security
guards for the event — in addition to the school’s normal security complement — and that
he was not responsible for the deaths and injuries. He blamed a shortage of
crowd-control efforts by CUNY.

Benza, however, ruled that Combs and Heavy D were equally responsible for the
tragedy, as was CUNY.

De Filippis said his client now can seek punitive damages against Combs and Heavy D.
“This was the legal hurdle we needed to overcome,” he said.

According to the New York Post, several suits against Heavy D and Combs are
pending in Manhattan Supreme Court.

Several wrongful-death suits filed against CUNY have been settled, according to court
documents.