The media juggernaut, Anschutz Entertainment Group, has just won city approval to build a football stadium next to its own Staples Center in downtown LA.
But the horrific death of a child after a Lakers’ game at Staples has triggered a lawsuit – and questions from the victim’s family -- about AEG’s handling of safety issues in its public arenas. NBC4 has new details exclusively.
The accident happened almost precisely a year ago. The Lakers had just trounced the Golden State Warriors, and the packed galleries were beginning to empty.
In a luxury skybox high above the Staples arena, two-year-old Lucas Tang was standing on a beverage bar attached to a front-row safety barrier, according to police reports provided to NBC4.
To his family hovering nearby, he seemed safe, with a tall Plexiglas window behind him to keep him from toppling over the edge.
His Vietnamese mother, Hoai Mi, was hunched over her camera just an arm’s length from him.
Witnesses tell police she snapped a photo of Lucas, then glanced down to check the image. In that split second, Lucas reportedly shifted to his right, to an area of the bar where the Plexiglas window was only ten inches high.
He tipped over it, and fell twenty-seven feet to the floor below.
His father raced to his side and held his hand as Lucas lay dying from massive head injuries.
“This traumatic event would not have happened if just a few safety precautions had been taken,” said Scott Wellman, a Laguna Hills attorney who represents the Tang family.
Wellman and law partner Stuart Miller are suing Staples owners and operators, AEG and LA Arena Company, and their architectural firm, which goes by the initials NBBJ, on the Tangs’ behalf.
The complaint, filed several months ago and amended on October 5, accuses the defendants of creating a “dangerous condition” by adding the beverage bar to the safety barrier, and a Plexiglas window too short to provide protection.
“A beverage bar should not be there,” Wellman told NBC4.
“It’s very easy for a toddler to scamper along this thing and then fall in the blink of an eye,” Miller said.
They also accuse Staples officials of failing to post warning signs to keep people away from the barrier.
“For the family we hope to get them a measure of compensation for this unimaginable loss they’ve suffered,” Miller said. “We want to prevent such a thing from happening again. Lucas’ death should not have been in vain.”
One photo of Lucas, which the family released to NBC4, shows a cherubic face under a sculptured tuft of auburn hair, flashing a toothy smile at the camera.
Another captures him with his father, Henry, in a more contemplative pose, both draped in baggy Lakers’ jerseys. They were both avid fans, according to the Tangs’ attorneys.
The defendants, AEG, LA Arena Co. and NBBJ, declined to be interviewed for this story. But in written statements they said that the skybox safety barriers were built strictly to all relevant building safety codes of the state and city.
The architectural firm, NBBJ, stated specifically, “The [barrier] design was in full compliance with the building codes that were in effect when Staples Center was built. The design is still in full compliance with the building codes that are in effect today.”
A lawyer for AEG, Mitchell Langberg, wrote to NBC4, “[F]ollowing the construction and installation of the guardrails DBS [LA’s Department of Building and Safety] inspected those guardrails, which included both the shelf and the Plexiglas, and determined that they were in compliance with the code effective at the time of installation and that they met current code.”
Focusing on specifics, the defendants noted that the smaller barrier, which figured in Lucas’ death, measures 26 inches in height, from the foot of its solid base to the top of the Plexiglas.
LA building officials confirmed to NBC4 that 26 inches is exactly the height that the codes require for these smaller barriers.
According to a statement from LA’s Department of Building and Safety: “The design of the subject guardrail has met and still meets the minimum code requirement of 26-inch vertical height, approved by LADBS.”
But Wellman and Miller pointed out that the building codes make no mention of Plexiglas or the beverage bar and they argued that the codes require the barrier to be an uninterrupted “straight unobtrusive vertical height.”
The bar, they said, violates that requirement by creating a climbing surface just ten inches below the top of the Plexiglas.
“They’ve got a barrier with a step in it,” said Miller, “and a child lost his life as a result of it.”
The AEG attorney insisted, “There is no mandated design. Nor is there any provision of the code that requires measuring of barrier’s height from anywhere but the floor.”
But Wellman told NBC4 that while the barrier may be the required minimum height, the added beverage bar, as an “alternative” to prescribed code standards, requires special inspections and approvals from building officials to insure that the ensemble is safe. He said that he has found no proof of any such approvals.
“I haven’t seen any evidence dealing with this issue,” he said.
Unfortunately, the Staples accident is not unique. Last summer a baseball fan nearly fell from a front-row beverage bar at a stadium in Phoenix, Arizona, and another fan, an off-duty fireman, was killed when he toppled over a 30-inch guardrail at Ranger’s Ballpark in Texas.
The Rangers’ management immediately raised the guardrails there and posted warnings against sitting or standing on them.
AEG has taken no such precautions since Lucas’ death, according to Wellman.
“I don’t know why they are not calling me and saying we want to fix this,” he said.
City officials declined to be interviewed for this story because of the lawsuit, they said in a written statement. The trial is set for next summer.