Three years since Lil Peep’s death, the legal battle over who’s responsible for the young rap star’s drug overdose is more intense than ever. While Peep’s mother alleges that his label set him up with unfair contracts and directly contributed to his death, the label is now countering with its own claims against the estate.
Peep, whose real name is Gustav Elijah Åhr, soared to popularity on SoundCloud as a teenager and signed a multi-year contract with First Access Entertainment (FAE) in 2016. On November 15th, 2017 — shortly after his 21st birthday — Åhr died of an overdose from Xanax and fentanyl on a tour bus near Tucson, Arizona. His mother and estate administrator Liza Womack filed suit in October 2019 against FAE, alleging that the management and record services company pushed her son into “asymmetrical” joint-venture business agreements, breached its contracts by not ensuring his safety, and was actively “plying and propping him up” with drugs while he was under the supervision of its agents and managers.
According to court documents filed in July 2020 and reviewed by Rolling Stone, Womack’s legal team has since amended their legal argument to make the explicit case that various tour managers hired by FAE had provided some portion of the drugs that contributed to Åhr’s death.
Per the filings, Womack’s legal team alleges Peep was instructed to take an excessive amount of Xanax on the day before he died, before a show in El Paso. (In 2019, Rolling Stone reported on the events of this night.)
“At this stop, Decedent expressed a desire not to perform, which was met with an instruction by employees/ostensible agents of Defendants, including [tour managers Belinda] Mercer, [Daisy] Quin, and Stephen Paul that Decedent take an excessive amount of Xanax so as to make himself sick, which would in turn trigger insurance coverage of the cancellation,” reads the court filing. “This Xanax that Decedent took at the direction and instruction of employees/agents/ostensible of Defendants … in the 24 hours preceding his death formed part of the lethal combination that killed him the following day.”
A judge has upheld all 10 causes of action that Womack has alleged against FAE. Another judge recently dismissed one cause of action alleged against Mercer and manager Chase Ortega — while upholding the majority of others against these two individuals.
“The plaintiff feels very gratified by the stage that this case is in at this juncture,” Paul Matiasic, Womack’s attorney, tells Rolling Stone. “We’re feeling very confident about the outcome of this case once we get our day in court.”
Three weeks ago, on October 30th, FAE hit back with allegations of its own — countering that Womack breached contracts by selling posthumous Lil Peep merchandise without FAE’s involvement or approval. The Peep estate “acted maliciously, with ill will, and by wrongful or improper means to establish and operate a competing merchandise business,” FAE says in its cross-complaint, noting that its joint-venture agreements with Peep had stipulated that FAE would get a significant cut of any merch revenue.
Womack’s legal team dismisses the significance of FAE’s cross-complaint, which does not pertain to the circumstances that led to Lil Peep’s overdose. “The cross-complaint by FAE was a compulsory one and is fairly standard,” says Matiasic. “Importantly, it does not deal with conduct prior to Gus’ death.”
Neither Mercer’s lawyer nor attorneys representing FAE replied to multiple requests for comment. Ortega, via his attorney, said in a statement that he sympathizes with Womack’s desire to find answers, as a parent himself, but “her lawsuit against me is entirely baseless, misguided, and without merit. I nonetheless wish her and her family well and I hope they find peace.”
The music industry has been following the thorny case with nervous anticipation, as its outcome could change the way the multibillion-dollar business operates with regards to its young stars. At heart, Womack’s suit argues that Lil Peep’s music company had a responsibility for his well-being — something FAE vehemently contested last year, saying that pinning the responsibility of the overdose on the company would be going “far beyond the contractual obligations and reasonable expectations of parties doing business” and that a ruling in the estate’s favor would “convert businesses engaged in the music and entertainment industries into full-time babysitters for artists.”
Outside lawyers and industry experts well-versed in estate law say it is difficult to speculate on the outcome of this atypical case.
“It’s not unusual for an artist estate to be tied up in litigation when the artist passes away, especially if they didn’t have a will — there are different bundles of rights that are all packaged differently and it can be very cumbersome,” Dina LaPolt, a music attorney who represented the Tupac estate, tells Rolling Stone. But there are not many precedents for an artist estate actively suing the artist’s label, and the drug-related allegations complicate the situation, she says.
When an artist dies, estates typically strive to maintain good relationships with the artist’s label because royalty streams are so entangled with the label, says Jeff Jampol, a music manager who has overseen the estates of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and the Ramones.
“You don’t usually see these things. I have looked at a lot of lawsuits that estates have been involved with, and I have not seen this,” he adds. “If the artist deal was not contested in the artist’s lifetime, why would it be contested afterward? Litigation comes from failure. Lawsuits are a last-ditch proceeding that means neither party was able to accomplish their business goal.”
John Branca, a co-custodian of the Michael Jackson estate, says he’s seen estates sue individuals such as doctors over wrongful death, but has never seen an estate pursue similar action against a company. He notes that the Los Angeles Angels baseball team was embroiled in a criminal case last year around the drug-caused death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs — but that an individual Angels employee has been charged with supplying Skaggs with drugs, not an organization.
When it comes to Womack’s allegation that FAE gave Peep a lopsided contract, Branca says the court will be looking closely at the precise terms laid out between artist and label to determine if there was negligence, misinformation, or deception involved. “If I’m selling a house, do I have to tell you I’m overpricing it?” he says.
Meanwhile, Brian Panish, who represented Michael Jackson’s estate in its 2013 wrongful death lawsuit against AEG, finds the case to be “intriguing.” “Some of the causes of action appear to be enough at least to get them to a jury to decide the case,” says Panish.
Lawyers not involved in the case predict that it will be years before an outcome is reached — and note that litigation involving estates sometimes drags out for up to 10 years, especially if the suits are filed in the court of a well-populated area like Los Angeles that is constantly juggling a slew of cases.
Both Lil Peep’s estate and FAE will need to provide evidence of their claims in a discovery phase before the case’s trial date, which is set for April 28th, 2021.