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.