A lawsuit won $2 million in damages for a hardcore punk fan who was injured by a stage diver at a benefit concert in Asbury Park – and brought an angry response from the event’s chief organizer.
Jason Kooken of New Hampshire had thanked members of Asbury Audio, Inc. after he was injured during an April 2, 2017 concert in memory of Vision lead singer Dave Franklin of Bridgewater, who'd died suddenly three months earlier.
More than 2,500 fans packed the famed Convention Hall for the tribute show, headlined by one of hardcore’s founding and most prominent bands, Agnostic Front of New York City, and featuring Murphy’s Law and Point Blank, among others.
The event raised nearly $10,000 each for North Shore Animal League America and Rock to the Future, which provides opportunities for inner-city youth in Philadelphia and Camden.
It also brought the lawsuit from Kooken.
Emerging from what was a vibrant hardcore scene in the 1980s, Vision never achieved widespread success, but it was credited with influencing such crossover acts as My Chemical Romance. Bands and fans welcomed the opportunity to pay tribute to Franklin while raising money for worthy causes.
Kooken, 46, of Exeter, New Hampshire, was running a film series in Amesburg, Masschusetts, and playing in a bluegrass band when he traveled to the Jersey Shore for the benefit.
He was in the mosh pit up front at the legendary boardwalk venue when a stage diver landed on the back of his shoulders just below the neck, temporarily paralyzing him.
Kooken was taken to nearby Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune City and eventually recovered, thanks to cervical spinal fusion surgery and several months of extensive rehabilitation, after suffering three herniated discs.
Kooken’s father launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised $11,580 to get his son to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. There also was a benefit concert staged by some local musician friends.
Soon after, Kooken began posting photos and messages of appreciation on Facebook.
One told of how concert-goers and others cleared the area and helped after he went down. In particular, he cited a male nurse who “was able to take appropriate action until the [m]edics arrived.”
The post also carried a “big thanks” to Jason Dermer, president of Asbury Audio, “not just for all his work that he did [to] put that show together but just for the love and kindness that he showed to everybody involved including myself.”
Dermer, members of Agnostic Front and others visited Kooken in the hospital (see photo above).
In a lawsuit filed last year in Superior Court in Freehold, Kooken accused the security firm hired by Dermer of ignoring fans diving from the stage.
The diver who landed on him “walked right past security, climbed on the stage, pointed and then corkscrewed his body over the band’s lead singer, flipping directly onto Mr. Kooken’s head,” it alleged.
Asbury Audio, accused of negligence in the suit, recently settled for $2 million, the most allowed by its insurance carrier.
The ordeal upset Dermer, who produced the show along with Pete Tabbot, Franklin’s long-time Vision bandmate.
Not only did the tribute to Franklin raise money for charity, he said: It also helped pay for Kooken’s transfer to Boston.
“I would have never said a word had this not gone to the press,” Dermer wrote in a post Thursday night. “But I need to have my say as well since this is public now.
“I was at the hospital to see him the moment they allowed visitors, bringing vegan meals since the hospital couldn't,” Dermer added. “Every member of AF stopped in as well,” including a band member who wasn’t even at the show.
“We all became friends,” he wrote. “[Kooken] has been a guest in my home.”
Two years to the day after the event, Dermer said, he and others were personally named in the suit along with Asbury Audio, Convention Hall and the security firm.
“Given the opportunity to let us out on a personal level, [Kooken] declined to do so,” he added.
Kooken “has been going to and even booking hardcore shows for 20+ plus years," Dermer wrote. "[T]here is video online of him long after the Dave show at other shows, with SURPRISE, him up front and divers jumping over him."
“We, despite not wanting to, used [a] barricade for the show to minimize diving,” he noted.
The only way over was a four-foot-wide thrust, Dermer wrote.
“I personally briefed security that while diving is not permitted, it is bound to happen and to catch/release as needed,” he noted.
“He was hurt. Permanently injured. That I understand,” said Dermer, who joined Vision members on vocals during their set. “But to lie/allow people to lie in your name to find your way out of personal responsibility, win a settlement, and then go to/allow his attorneys to go to the press in such [a] manner is unacceptable.
“Insurance paid...oh well. That's what insurance is for,” he concluded. “But what was taken and can never be replaced was the positive memories of doing the one thing that we could for Dave.
“This is not what ‘friends,’ especially in our scene, do to each other.”
The principal attorney of the law firm that represented Kooken responded that Dermer wasn't at risk of losing personal assets at any point.
"We were prosecuting the matter for insurance proceeds only," said Gerald Clark of Clark Law Firm in Belmar. "While it is true he was named in the suit personally, this was necessary because of various tort reform rules put in place by powerful elements that want to make it harder for ordinary people to get justice in court.
"The truth is: Once the insurance settlement was secured, we did in fact voluntarily dismiss Mr. Dermer from the case without him having had to pay a dime," Clark told Daily Voice. "Mr. Kooken could have continued the case against him toward a further settlement or trial but declined to do so."
Mark W. Morris, the lead attorney in the case, issued a statement: “People who go to concerts should not have to worry about someone landing on their head. It is important [that] concert venues and promoters develop comprehensive safety plans and hire competent security people that don’t let this kind of thing happen.
"We hope by achieving this result, we can prevent this kind of thing from happening to others in the future.”
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