Appeals court says no proof Chicago cops blocked exit door in deadly 2003 E2 nightclub stampede

An Illinois appeals panel has upheld a Cook County judge’s ruling, which cleared Chicago police of causing the deaths of patrons by preventing them from leaving the E2 nightclub in Chicago during a stampede there in 2003 that took 21 lives and injured more than 50.

The April 30 decision was authored by Justice Mary Mikva, with concurrence from Justices Daniel Pierce and Sheldon Harris, of the Illinois First District Appellate Court in Chicago. The decision was filed under Illinois Supreme Court Rule 23, which means it cannot be cited as precedent except in the circumstances outlined by Rule 23.

The decision favored the City of Chicago in a wrongful death suit lodged against the city by Howard Ray Sr. and Mary Ray.

On the early morning of Feb. 21, 2003 at the E2 club, which was on the second floor of a building on Chicago’s South Side, chaos broke out and a stampede ensued after security guards used pepper spray to try to quell a fight. As 1,500 patrons tried to flee, a number of them piled up at the bottom of the stairs that led to the club’s only exit and were crushed. One who died was Dashand Ray.

There were eventually more than 50 wrongful death and personal injury suits against various parties, including the city of Chicago, that were consolidated and eventually resolved, except for a remaining claim by Ray’s family against the city.

The Rays alleged an unknown Chicago police officer, who responded to the scene, “jammed, closed and locked” the exit door, preventing club goers from leaving. However, Cook County Circuit Judge Kathy Flanagan granted the city’s motion for summary judgment, saying there was no evidence either from video footage or depositions that any officer kept people from exiting.

In December 2016, the consolidated cases were closed out. The Ray family then appealed, largely arguing there were indications police denied egress to patrons.

Justice Mikva countered a video recording clearly showed that during the period patrons were crowding the door and then piling up, the door was “either standing open or was opening and closing,” with the door never closed for “more than a few seconds at a time.” Officers were visible in the footage, but neither they nor anyone else were keeping the door closed, according to Mikva.

One witness did say she saw a man she believed was an officer standing in the doorway, telling patrons to move back inside, but Mikva pointed out this action, even if true, is not the same as jamming, closing or locking the door as the lawsuit alleged.

The Ray family also argued on appeal they should have been permitted to amend their complaint to “conform to the proofs that were available at the time the court ruled on the City’s motion for summary judgment.” Mikva shut down this issue by noting the Rays never raised this matter in circuit court, so they forfeited the right to bring it up on appeal.

The Ray family has been represented by the Chicago firm of James D. Montgomery & Associates.

The c ity of Chicago has been defended by city attorneys.

After the 2003 stampede, the owners of E2, Dwain Kyles and Calvin Hollins, were sentenced to prison for failing to obey a city order from 2002 to shut down the club for such code violations as overcrowding.

This article was first published by Cook County Record.

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