A lawsuit filed Nov. 12 in Santa Clara County Superior Court alleges that negligent security allowed a heavily armed gunman to enter the Gilroy Garlic Festival on July 28, killing three people and injuring at least 14 others.
The lawsuit against the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association, various security companies and other unnamed defendants was filed by the Scarlett Law Group of San Francisco on behalf of five victims who suffered multiple life-threatening gunshot wounds. The lawsuit was announced at a San Francisco press conference Nov. 12. More plaintiffs could join the suit, said lawyer Randall H. Scarlett.
He said it was too soon to identify a dollar amount for a damage claim. The festival association doesn’t have very deep pockets: Its Internal Revenue Service 990 form listed $868,216 in net assets for 2018, down from $1,282,191 in net assets for 2017.
Scarlett said medical bills for just two of the plaintiffs have already totaled more than $2 million each, with treatment continuing.
The lawsuit claims the association, a Gilroy-based non-profit, could have done numerous things to make the festival safer, including maintaining a secure perimeter, monitoring that perimeter and other vulnerable areas with trained guards and properly staffing security personnel.
“Reasonable steps could have avoided this completely,” Scarlett told the crowded press conference.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit do not at this point include the families of the three people killed by the gunman: Stephen Romero, Keyla Salazar and Trevor Irby.
The Garlic Festival Association later Tuesday released the following statement: “The lawsuit filed today stemming from a horrific act of domestic terrorism, is not unexpected, and we will respond through the appropriate legal channels. As a non-profit organization, we must remain focused on our mission: fundraising for the entire community of Gilroy and the more than 150 charities that rely on us.”
In addition to the lawsuit, the Garlic Festival has another costly bill coming its way. In an invoice dated Nov. 7, the City of Gilroy billed the festival $148,237.50, with payment due Dec. 9. According to its contract with the festival, the city bills the festival for city services provided to the July festival each year.
The invoice obtained by the Gilroy Dispatch shows a charge of $83,985 for police personnel, and $24,051 for fire department personnel. Public works services totaled $36,705, and the special event permit cost $3,252.50.
Scarlett said he also is preparing a government claim against the City of Gilroy on behalf of his clients. State law requires that government claims be filed as a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against a government entity; all government claims have a six-month filing deadline. Scarlett also left open the possibility of suing gun manufacturers.
The lawsuit alleges that festival organizers:
- Should have known an active shooter was a “foreseeable” risk;
- Failed to conduct a threat assessment and/or security audit of the festival venue;
- Installed a “flimsy” chain link fence around the festival perimeter that contributed to “grossly deficient” security and allowed the shooter to enter the festival unchecked; and
- Did not have an adequate number of trained security personnel on duty the day the shooting occurred.
“People in Gilroy know you can hop the fence and get in for free,” said Scarlett. “Obviously, security was woefully deficient. Festival organizers owed a duty to protect the community members attending their event from the foreseeable and dangerous risk of shooters.
“No one should undertake to organize and promote a large public event without taking steps to make their attendees safe. It is simply unfathomable that they would not have better planned this event.”
The festival “didn’t take reasonable steps,” the lawyer said. “They left an entire area open.”
The first Gilroy Garlic Festival was held in 1979 and attracted approximately 15,000 people. The 2019 attendance was reported at approximately 85,000.
The festival is held annually at Christmas Hill Park, which is owned by the city of Gilroy. The festival association contracted with the city to lease the park beginning in 1985.
The Gilroy Dispatch reported this summer that the contract between the Gilroy Garlic Festival Association and the city of Gilroy has not been changed since that date. It also included no specific security provisions, other than to identify the festival association as responsible for security.
“The contract simply did not and could not contemplate the risks associated with hosting a large public event in modern times,” Scarlett said Tuesday. “The eight-year-old US Department of Homeland Security’s ‘Protective Measures Guide for the US Outdoor Venues Industry’ should also be observed.”
The guidelines say large event organizers must plan for worse-case scenarios, including possible terrorist attacks. The FBI is investigating the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting as an act of domestic terrorism.
“The lack of emergency planning led to chaos after the shooting,” Scarlett said in a statement.
“For example, other patrons of the festival rushed to Wendy Towner and Francisco Aguilera’s aid,” he said. “Unable to find medical personnel or emergency personnel, the patrons were forced to use water mixed with bleach from the utensil wash station to wash Wendy Towner’s wounds.”
He said that Towner, Aguilera and Brynn Ota-Matthews were all loaded into civilian vehicles for transport but “were not able to reach a hospital for over an hour … despite being in desperate need of such treatment.”
Towner, who may have been the first person shot at the festival, said she initiated the lawsuit “because many victims and I will likely have long-term health problems due to our injuries, and I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else.
“People who promote big events like the Garlic Festival must protect their volunteers, vendors and visitors,” Towner added.