A federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the widow and mother of a bicyclist who was killed when a car plowed through a crowd on a closed-off Austin street during the 2014 South by Southwest music festival.
The wrongful-death lawsuit said the city of Austin and festival organizers should have recognized that such an incident was possible yet failed to properly barricade Red River Street to protect those attending the annual festival, resulting in four deaths, including Steven Craenmehr, a music producer from the Netherlands who was killed while bicycling.
In a 2-1 ruling issued Wednesday evening, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voided the lawsuit by Craenmehr’s family, ruling that the actions of Rashad Owens — an intoxicated driver whose speed reached an estimated 55 mph, leaving a path of death and destruction across two blocks — was not reasonably foreseeable.
The ruling upheld a lower-court decision that dismissed the lawsuit for the same reason.
Owens, 26, was convicted of capital murder and is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
According to testimony at his trial and court documents, Owens was intoxicated and evading a police car on East Ninth Street when he turned north onto Red River, driving around a temporary barricade and forcing a police officer to jump aside to avoid being hit.
Writing in dissent, Judge James Graves Jr. said he would have allowed the lawsuit to continue against the city, though not against the festival organizers, because a dozen incidents involving drunken drivers and pedestrians — in Austin and across the country — should have warned city planners that a tragedy was possible.
Other statistics provided adequate warnings as well, Graves said.
“During the period from 2009-14, in downtown Austin during SXSW, there were at least 153 collisions between motorists and pedestrians/bicyclists, 356 arrests for public intoxication, and 171 arrests for drunk driving,” Graves wrote. “This is sufficient to establish that it was foreseeable that drunken people and vehicles were consistently not where they were supposed to be every year in the festival zone.”
But the author of the majority opinion, Judge Thomas Reavley, said previous incidents did not provide an adequate warning.
Although the lawsuit pointed to collisions between autos and pedestrians during SXSW, none involved a vehicle that drove around a police barricade, Reavley said. Further, he wrote, the lawsuit found only two incidents of a driver hitting pedestrians after driving around a barrier, and both happened more than a decade earlier in California and Indiana.
Scott Hendler of Austin, the lawyer for Craenmehr’s family, said he is considering whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene or ask the three-judge panel or the entire 5th Circuit Court to reconsider the ruling. Though the options are longshots, Hendler said he believed the appeals court applied the wrong legal standard, leaving the man’s family without the ability to gather additional information to bolster their arguments or seek justice.
“Right now, it means they’re without a remedy, and it’s unfortunate,” Hendler said.