Civil suit claiming SXSW had a role in tragic crash dismissed

Crews respond to the aftermath, moments after a driver plowed through a crowd during the 2014 SXSW Festival in downtown Austin. Four people were killed, 20 others hurt. (Sophia Beausoleil / KXAN)
Crews respond to the aftermath, moments after a driver plowed through a crowd during the 2014 SXSW Festival in downtown Austin. Four people were killed, 20 others hurt. (Sophia Beausoleil / KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – (Updates with filed appeal linked at the bottom of this post) A federal court judge dismissed civil damage claims made against South By Southwest Holdings, SXSW LLC, and the traffic planning consultant hired to design road closures for the 2014 edition of the annual music festival. That was the year the man convicted in the tragedy, Rashad Owens, fleeing police crashed through a metal barricade and into a crowd of festival-goers killing four and injuring 20 others.

“I take these kinds of cases very seriously,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Scott Hendler. “While I have a great deal of respect for this judge, we have a very different view of the evidence.”

In the ruling dated Sept 20, 2016, Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed multiple claims filed by the widow, an unnamed child and surviving mother of Steven Craenmehr. They were not immediately available for comment. The 35 year old from the Netherlands was struck and killed while riding his bike back to his hotel the night of March 13, 2014.

Steven Craenmehr was killed in the crash. (Facebook)
Steven Craenmehr was killed in the crash. (Facebook Photo)

The lawsuit claimed the defendants were liable on several fronts. Primary among them: the festival planners and organizers could have reasonably anticipated the collision at issue in light of previous “errant vehicle” incidents around downtown Austin. Yet Judge Yeakel decided against the plaintiffs, ruling their legal arguments failed to state claims that rose “above the speculative level.”

Yeakel concluded SXSW organizers could not reasonably predict a random crime would happen at their festival locations since crime “may possibly occur almost anywhere, especially in a large city… Further, (w)hether such risk is foreseeable is not determined in hindsight.”

SXSW had received right-of-way permits from the city of Austin for certain road closures. Yeakel noted those permits were for areas within the approved traffic control plan. Craenmahr was struck on a public roadway not closed to traffic and not under SXSW control, he wrote.

Judge Yeakel also dismissed a claim of negligence in hiring Patrick Lowe of Transportation Design Consultants Inc. (plaintiffs contended Lowe should not have been hired since he is not a licensed civil engineer) as well as claims of breach of warranty. Yeakel concluded plaintiffs could not show the court any implied warranty to the public or festival goers to keep the premises safe.

After the tragedy, the city of Austin implemented a number of safety changes including augmenting the number and type of road barricades.

Separate civil suits filed by other surviving victims in state court are ongoing. SXSW Attorney Peter Kennedy issued this statement:

“SXSW appreciates the federal court’s careful attention to the case. We continue to have the deepest sympathy for Steven Craenmehr’s family and all of the people harmed by Rashad Owens’s crimes. SXSW has no further comment on the lawsuits, and we will continue to look to the judicial system to resolve the remaining cases.”

An amendment to the petition filed after Judge Yeakel’s decision to dismiss notes separate legal actions filed against the city of Austin and other defendants including Rashad Owens and Andrew Bramwell, the man whom the suit contends gave Owens the keys to his car that night. The original Craenmahr suit cannot be appealed until those suits are decided, records show. As a sort of legal insurance policy, Hendler filed an appeal Thursday with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

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