Deadly SXSW crash survivors blame festival for safety issues

Scene outside Mohawk in Downtown Austin after car plowed through street packed with people in town for SXSW (Courtesy: Colin Kerrigan)
Scene outside Mohawk in Downtown Austin after car plowed through street packed with people in town for SXSW (Courtesy: Colin Kerrigan)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — It was a deadly night described by witnesses as “chaos” while bodies flew through the air and people watched in horror.

Some survivors from the fatal South by Southwest crash on March 13, 2014 had their civil lawsuit heard Thursday afternoon in the 250th District Civil Court in Travis County. They claim the festival could have done more to keep them safe.

Among the plaintiffs are Gracie Nguyen and Patrick Sanchez. The two Houston residents say they took a spontaneous trip to check out the festival.

“Our lives changed in literally the blink of an eye,” said Nguyen. She was only 23 at the time of the incident, suffering a fractured skull and a broken leg, among other injuries.

“I had a traumatic brain injury and I tore my carotid artery, so that caused the stroke,” Nguyen told KXAN. She said the stroke has caused her to lose her peripheral vision in her left eye, along with her sense of small and taste. As a chef, she said, it’s particularly difficult for her career.

Gracie Nguyen pictured in the hospital after sustaining injuries in the SXSW tragedy in 2014. (Courtesy: Gracie Nguyen)
Gracie Nguyen pictured in the hospital after sustaining injuries in the SXSW tragedy in 2014.
(Courtesy: Gracie Nguyen)

Nguyen’s daughter was only four years old when she was severely injured in the 2014 tragedy.

Nguyen says the last thing she remembers was parking and walking toward the music. She said she then woke up in the hospital. While she has no recollection of the tragedy, she says she remembers the recovery since then.

“I do have all the memories of the after-effects,” she said. “It still affects me to this day. Still can’t see, still can’t taste, still can’t spell, and so it can be very frustrating.”

Thursday’s motion hearing was the final opportunity for all parties to convince Civil District Judge Karin Crump of their arguments. It is expected that Judge Crump will take these presentations under advisement, then take time to consider whether to move forward with a formal trial.

Sanchez tells KXAN the reason they are pursuing a lawsuit is to “prevent something like this from happening so somebody else. We’ve already seen first-hand what the effects of something like this can be.”

He described what happened that night as “hectic, crazy, and unexpected.”

“If I have anything against anyone it’s the festival because of their negligence,” Nguyen said. “They could have also helped prevent what happened.”

The couple describes themselves as innocent bystanders, festival patrons who attended on their day off.

Trey Crawford, who represents Nguyen and Sanchez, told KXAN News the festival was negligent in its involvement in the deadly SXSW incident, calling it a “preventable tragedy.”

“Their negligence was a cause of the injuries and, if they had followed their traffic control plan and designed an adequate one, my clients never would have been injured,” said Crawford. “There was nothing to prevent them from being in harm’s way. They would not have been there.”

Attorneys for the plaintiffs also argue that SXSW’s corporate leaders should have “reasonably foreseen” the possibility of an ‘errant vehicle’ crashing through the festival perimeter.

Counsel for the defendants in the civil suit said the 2014 deadly incident was “unforeseeable” and “tragic.” Errant vehicles, the defense counsel said Thursday, their parties were prepared for. Rashad Owens’ actions, they say, were “fundamentally different.”

“Mr. Owens was going the wrong way down Ninth Street. Unlike a person who might be losing control of his vehicle, because he was drunk,” said Peter Kennedy, the attorney representing SXSW in the suit. Kennedy says Owens acted intentionally. “He slowed and makes a deliberate right hand turn into a barricaded area.”

A decision could be weeks away. Several people were injured when Rashad Owens drove his car through a barrier and into a crowd of people during SXSW in an effort to avoid being pulled over by police.

SXSW Crash Victims
SXSW Crash Victims

The crash killed four people and injured 20 others. DeAndre Tatum,18, Jamie West, 27, Steven Craenmehr, 35, and Sandy Le, 26, were killed in the crash. Owens has been found guilty of capital murder and will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The survivors say SXSW’s corporate leaders should have reasonably foreseen the possibility of an errant vehicle crashing through the festival perimeter. The case says in light of previous incidents in downtown Austin, a contingency plan should have been put into place.

Last month, a judge dismissed the federal case against the festival. The ruling stated the family who lost Steven Craenmehr from the Netherlands didn’t make arguments that rose above speculation accusing the festival of not being prepared for this type of accident.

In November 2015, a Travis County jury found Rashad Owens guilty of capital murder after three hours of deliberations. By convicting Owens of capital murder, the jury found he knew his actions carried a reasonable certainty killing others on March 13, 2014 when he was trying to elude an officer pulling him over on a traffic violation.

After the tragedy, the city of Austin implemented a number of safety changes including augmenting the number and type of road barricades. Police cars are also now being used to block closed streets and protect emergency vehicle lanes. Venue owners must now submit a safety plan to protect festival goers both inside their event and for those lining up on the sidewalk.

Crawford told KXAN that for his clients, those changes came “too little, too late.”

Lawyers representing South by Southwest sent KXAN the following statement Thursday:

Our deepest sympathies remain with Rashad Owens’s victims and their families. Safety has always been and remains a top priority for SXSW. We work very closely with the City of Austin’s police, fire, and transportation departments to put on as safe an event as possible. However, this extraordinary crime was wholly unprecedented and unforeseen.
We vigorously disagree with the allegations made against SXSW in the hearing today, but we will look to the court for resolution of this dispute and will not comment on the merits of the case.”

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