By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It was as unexpected as tax season. A little more than a week after Jesse Chaddock received a sentence of 19 years for organized crime in the July 26 beating of David Cunniff at the Gypsy Tea Room, the Cunniff family (including daughters Courtney and Caitlen and son Ryan) filed a civil suit against the popular Deep Ellum nightclub. The suit, filed April 13, alleges negligence and dram shop liability and seeks damages for physical and mental injuries.
To recap: In April, Chaddock was found guilty of organized crime for his part in an assault at an Old 97's concert that left David Cunniff near death. Chaddock is a friend of Gypsy's then-talent buyer Scott Beggs, who testified on Chaddock's behalf at his trial. Chaddock was a club regular and had been placed on the guest list that night and, according to court testimony, given free drinks.
"The question is: What did the folks at the Gypsy Tea Room know about this fellow?" says Stephen Malouf, attorney for the Cunniffs. "That's it. What did they know? The evidence indicates they knew him by reputation as someone who was a troublemaker. They knew him personally as someone who was violent. If those are the facts, and you comp that person in and you feed him free alcohol, you've lit a time bomb. You can't just walk away and say the bomb went off by itself."
The case will finally bring to the table questions that have been haunting the Gypsy since the incident occurred: Was the staff in some way responsible? Was Chaddock given special treatment? Could the whole thing possibly have been prevented?
"Obviously it will be up to the courts to decide all this," says Whit Meyers, legal counsel and vice president of food and beverage at the EC(Entertainment Collaborative), whose properties include Jeroboam, Trees and Green Room. Asked about whether the Tea Room staff had reason to believe Chaddock was dangerous, Meyers responded, "I'm not going to answer that. I don't know what the staff does and does not know. That's the type of evidence that will be developed in the case. Obviously, Scott knew him. To what extent he knew him, I don't know." Meyers adds that his bartenders are all TABC-trained and, concerning the charge of negligence, "I think we have an excellent staff. It's very rare for there to be this kind of incident at Gypsy Tea Room or Trees." Clubgoers would probably agree that even as reports of violence in the area escalated, the Gypsy was seen as a haven from the growing stigma. Of course, that makes the charges all the more unsettling. After all, the Gypsy is regularly chosen as Best Live Music Venue by Dallas Observer readers and packed most weekends. How is it possible that a father who came with his teen daughter left on a stretcher with little hope of walking again? (Mr. Cunniff has since gained limited use of his limbs through rehabilitation programs.)
An odd addendum to the July 26 incident came last January, when Scott Beggs quit the EC after 10 years with the company. Beggs has since gone on to develop his own talent-buying company, Fifth Street Concerts, a collaboration with Damageplan manager Paul Bassman, and recently returned from managing a tour for Flogging Molly. "I left the EC based on unresolved issues I didn't think were going to change," Beggs says. "I left on my own, and it had to do with a lot of other issues with the way the company was being run." The action will have little effect, if any, on the case.
Whit Meyers says he doesn't blame Cunniff for filing suit--"to the extent that this might help facilitate his recovery by providing insurance proceeds to pay for his medical bills. Although obviously I'm not going to admit to any liability." He adds: "We're deeply saddened by what happened to David, and it affected everyone very deeply. We're glad to see he was able to walk into that courtroom. I think everyone was uplifted by that."