Eight preventable deaths at Houston’s Astroworld music festival are another brutal reminder of the various, interconnected organizations with a duty of care to keep people safe and secure at sports and entertainment venues.  

Tragedies like the one Friday night at the Astroworld music festival have been happening for decades, costing promoters, venue managers and even local governments millions in legal liability, damages and physical losses.

Specific to people who have been killed due to poor crowd control in “stampedes” or “crushes,” there are many measurable incidents that illustrate this duty of care — and thus create strong liability concerns for promoters, sporting clubs and venue managers who fail to properly plan for, control and staff their events. For example, the United Kingdom has regularly had violent clashes and crowd control-related deaths at sporting venues, most notably when roughly 100 soccer fans were crushed to death at the Hillsborough soccer stadium in 1989.

Here in the United States, our duty of care relating to live concerts goes back to 1979, when eleven music fans died in a scramble to enter a Who concert in Cincinnati. Even in sacred, religious events, the duty of care must be upheld, as exemplified in the collision of two crowds at the 2015 Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, resulting in more than 2,400 deaths.

While most public events happen without casualties, the duty of care should always be applied from a worst-case scenario approach to planning. This can be done by examining common traits among case studies specific to sporting and entertainment venues. It’s also vital to remove any silos between safety, code compliance, and security, as they are strongly interconnected.

Event planners, venue managers and internal stakeholders should have independently responsible professionals assuring that they are adhering to the duty of care relevant to their stakeholders. 

With decades of international case studies and prior incidents to highlight if such an incident should be brought to court, no responsible party can afford to claim ignorance or an inability to afford to adhere to the duty of care.

“Safety has no profit,” said G. Keith Still, a crowd science expert at the U.K.’s University of Suffolk, “so it tends to be the last thing in the budget.” Still has conducted “research covering over 100 years of disasters, and invariably they all come down to very similar characteristics.”

Best practices

First, it’s important for the venue, promoter/planner and even the artist/team to have a professional in “responsible charge” for the safety, security and welfare of the event. If a permanent staff member cannot be afforded, a certified contractor should be hired as needed. This is essential because, in so many of these incidents, the promoters or venue merely hires the lowest-bidding event security contractor who sends staff without proper planning.

A great example of responsible charge comes from professional sports. The National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), among others, have security directors — as do the individual teams and venues. Most recently, the MLB Players Association is hiring their own security director as well. Furthermore, individual event stakeholders like Aramark (food & beverage distributors), parking lots and municipalities have people responsible for their relative safety & security duty of care at public events. 

This overlapping scope is creating an environment where all risks are considered and planned for by the professionals in responsible charge for their respective stakeholders.  

Panning is also a key function in making sure that the density of the crowd doesn’t exceed guidelines set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), local fire code and staffing limits. Therefore, your plan has to account for enough capacity for the amount of tickets sold, event staffing to control them, exit availability and avenues of egress for people to move within.

Planners should also conduct a risk assessment and take precautions pursuant to the energy of the crowd at an event, which may require breaking large crowds into smaller groups penned into different sections around the stage or field. This can also allow for pathways for event staff to respond or for emergency exits when needed.

While crowd density is an important factor in a deadly surge, it is important to plan for and be ready for possible catalysts that may cause the crowd to rush in the same direction. As a former member of the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Civil Disturbance Unit (CDU), this was an observation I had with the U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) staffing and lack of U.S. Park and Metropolitan Police CDU on scene during the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. Unlike normal rallies at the Capitol, the January 6 event was held on a day where a vote with a predictable outcome was being held. This should have been seen as a potential surge catalyst in planning by USCP, and mutual aid throughout the D.C. law enforcement community should have been requested in advance

Even something as mundane as weather could cause a crush, such as the sudden downpour of rain or hail that killed 93 soccer fans in Nepal who surged toward locked stadium exits in 1988.  

Poor crowd management systems, where event organizers don’t have strong procedures in place to report red flags or warnings, contribute to deadly outcomes and increased liability. Therefore, it is important for professional safety and security personnel to be a part of event planning and management, so that the duty of care is upheld.