First Access lawyers warn that Lil Peep lawsuit could leave music companies as ‘full-time babysitters for artists’

First Access Entertainment has laid out its defense in a US-based legal case regarding the tragic death of rapper Lil Peep, aged 21, in November 2017.

Medical practitioners ruled the death of Peep, real name Gustav Elijah Ahr, as being caused by an accidental overdose of Xanax and fentanyl.

In October last year, the mother of Ahr, Liza Womack, filed a lawsuit against First Access (FAE), the management and label services company co-founded by Sarah Stennett and Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries in 2015.

Womack’s suit alleged that, throughout 2017,  Ahr was “stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, exhausted and physically unwell”, and that First Access was partly responsible, even complicit in, the artist’s drug-taking – something Stennett’s company has strenuously denied.

Womack further alleged that FAE breached contractual agreements held in an “asymmetrical joint-venture business enterprise” with Ahr.

Now, as first covered on Rolling Stone, First Access has provided an extensive legal response to Womack’s allegations as part of a demurrer document filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court on December 23.

MBW has obtained this demurrer (which you can read in full through here). The crux of FAE’s defense is summed up by its lawyers’ suggestion that the firm “did not owe an independent duty of care to Mr. Ahr, breach such a duty, or cause his death”.

“[First Access] Did not owe an independent duty of care to Mr. Ahr.”

FAE Demurrer defense filing

FAE’s argument, in the main, centers on the fact that it says it had an “arm’s length” business relationship with Ahr.

This, it says, took the form of a Joint Venture Agreement (JVA) between Ahr and FAE – covering Peep’s “recording, mixing, arranging, and performing his musical works through various media [plus] music-related acting on stage or TV; modeling or activities in the fashion industry; literary and writing activities; endorsements for branding or merchandising; and promotional appearances”.

This, says FAE, was purely a “contractual business relationship and did not involve managing Mr. Ahr’s personal life or protecting his personal safety”.

The JV was initially set to span three years, from August 2016 to August 2019, but was later upped twice, to August 2023, “upon the Parties’ attainment of specified financial goals, including Mr. Ahr’s share of net profits reaching $3 million”.

According to the demurrer document: “[FAE] provided financial support for Mr. Ahr’s professional music career, including (among other things) paying for recording and promoting his music, arranging performances/ tours, and providing financial advances that could not be recouped if there were no profits.”

It adds: “FAE Ltd. owns a 50% interest in all works Mr. Ahr created during his lifetime arising from or related to his activities, and all products created or arising from those activities.  Mr. Ahr owned, and now his estate owns, the other 50% interest in those works and products.”

Rolling Stone has reviewed the actual JV contract between Ahr and FAE. It reports that when the JV company’s net profits reached more than $5 million, the split would increase to 60% in the artist’s favor, and would additionally climb to 65% when those same profits surpassed $20 million.

It says that FAE paid the artist a $35,000 advance plus $300,000 for recording, tour support, marketing, and brand development.

The demurrer document notes that the Ahr and First Access jointly hired Chase Ortega’s The HYV company to create merch for Lil Peep. Rights to this merch were split 50/50 between FAE and the artist, with net profits from sales split 40/60 in the artist’s favor after Ortega took 20% of gross revenues.

(Chase Ortega is a co-defendant in Ahr’s mother’s lawsuit.)

Later in the demurrer filing, a police report into Ahr’s death is cited from November 2017, which noted that the artist “had gotten laced drugs [on the day he died] from a couple of groupies that were chased as they ran from the scene.”

In other words,” continues the demurrer, “Mr. Ahr overdosed on ‘street drugs’ from an unknown source.”

FAE then acknowledges a series of accusations from Womack about the company (technically, about either its UK-based company, FAE Ltd, or its US-based company, FAE LLC.) These allegations from Womack include:

  • “[FAE] knew that the continued use of dangerous drugs on this tour by many, including [Mr. Ahr], allowed Defendants to maintain a certain degree of control over the tour and its artists.”
  • Defendants allowed Mr. Ahr to perform in Los Angeles in May 2017 even though he was “barely able to communicate, let alone perform, due to his use of drugs.”
  • In early 2017, Ms. Stennett allegedly gifted Mr. Ahr a bottle of “pills” at a group dinner. 
  • On August 16, 2017, Mr. Ortega allegedly texted Mr. Ahr that Ms. Stennett was about to arrive in New York City and had Xanax pills for him.
  • Mr. Ahr told [FAE] on many occasions that… he was “anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, burnt out, exhausted and physically unwell,” but Defendants ignored “these cries for help” and, instead, “pushed [Mr. Ahr] onto stage after stage in city after city, plying and propping [Mr. Ahr] up with illegal drugs and unprescribed controlled substances all along the way.”

Despite repeating its “vehement” denial of all allegations listed above, lawyers for First Access posit – for the sake of legal debate – what it would mean for the case if all of them were true. 

The First Access demurrer argues that, even in this hypothetical situation, Womack’s lawsuit “fails to allege facts showing that… [FAE] contracted with Mr. Ahr to manage or control any aspect of his personal life, including his eating, drinking, sleeping, exercise, social or drug use activities, regimens or habits, or ensure his personal safety or well-being”.

In addition, it argues that Womack’s suit fails to show that FAE “undertook the task of managing or controlling Mr. Ahr’s personal life, or the task of ensuring his personal safety or well-being”, nor that “[any] of the specific drugs Defendants allegedly supplied to Mr. Ahr actually killed him”.

Later in the document, First Access returns to its central argument: that the JV agreement with Ahr did not constitute a “duty of care” arrangement.

It reads: “The JVA makes it clear that Mr. Ahr did not contract with FAE Ltd. (or any other defendant) to manage or control his personal life or protect his personal safety. No term in the JVA even comes close to obligating FAE Ltd. to provide such personal services. In fact the JVA makes it clear that Mr. Ahr did not want that. He wanted (and contracted for) a purely business relationship.”

“Imposing a duty on FAE Ltd. or FAE LLC to prevent Mr. Ahr’s drug overdose would extend the boundaries of legal obligations far beyond any precedent… would convert businesses engaged in the music and entertainment industries into full time baby-sitters for artists.”

It adds: “Imposing a duty on FAE Ltd. or FAE LLC to prevent Mr. Ahr’s drug overdose would extend the boundaries of legal obligations far beyond any precedent, and far beyond the contractual obligations and reasonable expectations of parties doing business. 

“It would convert businesses engaged in the music and entertainment industries into full time baby-sitters for artists. That clearly was not the parties’ intent upon entering the JVA.”

The demurrer notes that, in FAE’s eyes, the Joint Venture between First Access and Ahr also did not constitute “a duty to supervise”. In other words, for FAE to be legally liable for the actions of its co-defendants in the case: Chase Ortega, plus Peep’s tour manager Belinda Mercer. (Update: FAE also says it didn’t have a “duty to supervise” Peep’s relationship with two other First Access affiliates – Daisy Quin and Steve Paul – who are not co-defendants.)

The demurrer further notes that ten days before Ahr’s untimely death on November 15, 2017, the artist sent Stennett a text which read: Thank u so much Sarah ! We just got to Miami. I’m great my friends are great and it’s very hot and sunny. Hope everything is well ♥ thank you so much for this again”

According to Rolling Stone, in the wake of FAE’s demurrer being filed, Liza Womack filed an amended complaint on December 30, hitting back at the claim that First Access had an “arm’s length” relationship with Lil Peep.

The amended filing alleges that FAE “undertook the task of controlling and managing [Peep’s] personal life,” including his “eating, drinking, sleeping, allowing for his personal hygiene, procuring driver’s license/identification cards … living arrangements, buying and providing furniture, co-signing leases, securing and paying for utilities, money management, budgeting, paying taxes, identifying, paying for, transporting, and accessing health care providers and therapists, exercise, social activities, drug use, personal safety, and well-being.”

According to FAE’s demurrer, the trial date for the case is set for April 4, 2021.

[Picture credit: Hurricanehank/Shutterstock]Music Business Worldwide

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