Gustav Åhr, known to the world as Lil Peep, seemed poised to become emo-rap’s breakout star when he died in 2017. He was 21 years old. The local authorities in Tucson, Arizona, where Lil Peep passed away before a scheduled tour stop in support of his debut album, Come Over When You’re Sober (Part One), ruled the cause of death to be a drug overdose of the prescription drugs fentanyl and Xanax. Lil Peep’s fame hasn’t diminished since. A posthumous album, Come Over When You’re Sober Pt. 2, arrived last year. A high-profile documentary about his life, Everybody’s Everything, is scheduled for release on November 15, the second anniversary of the rapper’s death.
Now, a lawsuit over who’s to blame for Lil Peep’s fatal overdose could have potentially far-reaching implications, legal experts say. Liza Womack, Lil Peep’s mother and the administrator of his estate, sued the late rapper’s management on October 7, according to court documents. The 26-page complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court and obtained by Pitchfork, claims that although Lil Peep was “stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, exhausted, and physically unwell,” his managers pushed him “onto stage after stage in city after city, plying and propping [Lil Peep] up” with assorted substances.
From Mac Miller to Michael Jackson, civil and even criminal allegations following the death of a performer aren’t uncommon in the music world. But those cases have typically gone after a doctor or another person outside of the artist’s camp accused of providing the drugs. What makes Womack’s case unusual if not unique, lawyers said, is that it takes aim at the handlers who were working with and profiting off of the late artist. According to attorneys interviewed by Pitchfork, If Lil Peep’s mother wins a large jury award, the music industry and others may be forced to take note. “It’s going to have somewhat of a ripple effect,” said Gary Adelman, a New York entertainment lawyer.
Womack filed the lawsuit against First Access Entertainment, a joint venture between its CEO Sarah Stennett, and Len Blavatnik, the Soviet-born multi-billionaire owner of Warner Music. Also personally named as defendants are Bryant “Chase” Ortega, who was a member of Lil Peep’s management team, and tour manager Belinda Mercer. In a previous statement to Pitchfork, First Access called Womack’s lawsuit “groundless and offensive,” adding that the claim that “any of its employees, or Chase Ortega, or anyone else under our auspices was somehow responsible for, complicit in, or contributed to his death is categorically untrue.” In a March article in Rolling Stone, through a lawyer, Stennett denied giving Lil Peep drugs or being aware of drugs people were taking on the tour bus. First Access declined to comment further for this story; Ortega and Mercer didn’t respond to emails from Pitchfork.
Womack’s lawsuit does not dispute that Lil Peep had a role in his own death. But her case does advance various arguments that the management team shares at least some of the responsibility. Although Lil Peep was legally an adult, the complaint describes him as an “impressionable kid” and a “child” whose mother still ordered his boxer briefs and socks. (“Yes mama got new underpants on love u,” Lil Peep texted Womack months before his death, according to the lawsuit.)
In that sense, Lil Peep’s case looks factually different from its most famous predecessors. After all, nobody argued that Tom Petty or Prince, also killed tragically by overdoses in recent years, essentially weren’t adults. “This raises some really novel questions,” Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Amy Breyer said of the lawsuit. “How much duty did the people he was doing business with owe to him? It may be based in some part upon his age and vulnerability.”
The answer to these questions takes on extra urgency because of where the case was filed. In some states, the law prevents an injured party from suing when they too engaged in wrongful conduct, which could include the decision to use illicit drugs. But California law allows for “comparative negligence,” which means that if a jury decides Lil Peep’s managers were even one percent at fault for his death, his mother could collect damages.
Womack’s lawsuit offers a number of formal causes of action that could help get to that point. The complaint alleges five different kinds of negligence, including wrongful death, as well as three types of contract-related breaches and one violation of the California Business and Professions Code. “It was very well put together,” Breyer said. “The complaint was very broadly worded in order to give the judge as many possible hooks to hang his or her hat on in allowing this to get to a jury.”
Lee Sherman, a Los Angeles lawyer who has worked on entertainment and wrongful death matters, tells me that Womack’s case goes beyond the typical quibbles of a civil lawsuit. “There’s actually criminal implications in this, if a district attorney type was to start looking at how these drugs are being obtained and being distributed illegally,” he said. (A spokesperson for the Pima County Attorney’s office in Arizona, where Lil Peep died, told Pitchfork no state felony charges are pending in the case. A spokesperson for the Tucson Police Department said the case remains closed.)
Even without the risk of criminal charges, some of the details of the lawsuit could put First Access and the other defendants in a tight spot. The complaint cites text messages from Stennett, Ortega, and Mercer appearing to offer the rapper drugs like Xanax and ketamine. “That's going to be very challenging for the defense,” Breyer said. “It puts them in the position of making a very unsympathetic argument that he was an adult and if he wanted to do this, it’s his business. I would be surprised if that kind of argument really wins the day.”
A case of this complexity could take years to work its way through the courts, and it’s anyone’s guess who will prevail. Any impact on the rest of the music industry also remains to be seen. If music industry pros weren’t thinking twice about the type of behavior that’s alleged in Womack’s complaint, they “damn well” should be now, said Sherman. “Everybody in that industry that’s on the management side needs to be extremely careful and thoughtful at all times about what they're doing, and how they're doing it, and what the implications are if things go bad,” he said. “People tend never to think about the bad things that can happen.”
Behavior in the industry could change “if First Access really gets tagged” with a hefty jury verdict, said Breyer. She also speculated that, regardless of the outcome in court, a case like this could ostensibly launch an activist movement, citing the influence of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s and ’90s. And in California, with its liberal voter base and outsized entertainment industry, legislation to prevent similar situations might not be out of the question, she said.
The issues in Liza Womack’s lawsuit are, sadly, not isolated to the music industry. The suit arrives at the same time that new evidence has emerged in the case of Tyler Skaggs, the 27-year-old Los Angeles Angels pitcher who died in July from choking on his own vomit after ingesting fentanyl, oxycodone, and alcohol. The similarities between Skaggs’ death and Peep’s are striking: A new report reveals that a team employee was supplying Skaggs with opioids and even watched the pitcher snort drugs in front of him just hours before he died. Alleged in both cases is that a young person is being enabled by someone who can benefit from his success. A jury may soon have to decide what happens when the consequence is death.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the defendants in the lawsuit (per the New York Times’ initial reporting). Although First Access Entertainment is named as a defendant, its CEO, Sarah Stennett, is not.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork