SXSW Crash Suits Commence

The first wave of victim lawsuits since four people died at the South by Southwest music festival accused organizers Thursday of safety lapses after a driver smashed through a barricade and into a crowd of concertgoers.

Photo: AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman, Jay Janner

Aspiring rapper Rashad Charjuan Owens has remained jailed on capital murder charges since the March crash that authorities say happened while Owens fled police during an attempted midnight traffic stop. Hundreds of music lovers were milling outside a bustling district of clubs at the time.

The crash also left nearly two dozen people injured, and organizers of the once-obscure Austin festival have faced questions since the accident about how they have managed the event’s transformation into an international extravaganza. The festival now regularly draws top artists such as Prince and Lady Gaga.

Among several wrongful deaths lawsuits was one by the family of Steven Craenmehr, a Dutch music executive who was riding a bike when struck. His widow and mother allege that SXSW organizers skimped on traffic safeguards while packing people downtown to hear more than 2,000 bands.

“A festival organizer or traffic design consultant of ordinary intelligence would have anticipated the danger,” the lawsuit says.

Lawyers for SXSW released a statement that expressed grief for the families but did not address the claims in the lawsuit.

“What happened on Red River was a terrible tragedy, caused by Rashad Owen’s utter disregard of human life. Our hearts continue to ache for those injured and the families of those who lost their lives. We look forward to his prosecution for his awful crimes,” the statement read.

The lawsuits were filed in both state and federal court.

Authorities say Owens gunned his gray Honda Civic through a barricade after an officer on a drunken-driving patrol tried stopping the car in Austin’s crowded entertainment district. His blood alcohol level was .114, above Texas’ legal driving limit of .08, according to police.

In September, a SXSW safety report ordered by city leaders found that alcohol consumption and overcrowded venues had left Austin facing a “critical point where public safety could be compromised” if changes are not made. SXSW organizers called the report incomplete and said it failed to address root issues.

The organizers say more than 350,000 people were drawn to the festival this year for official showcases and free events. Next year’s music festival begins March 17.

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages.