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A Manhattan judge has ruled that rhythm and blues singer Aaliyah, who was killed in a 2001 plane crash while filming a music video in the Bahamas, was an “asset” of her record company rather than an employee, freeing the company to sue for negligence in her death. Blackground Records filed suit against Instinct Productions, the video production company, in November 2003. Instinct and other defendants had recently settled wrongful-death claims brought by Aaliyah’s parents. The production company, which arranged transportation for Aaliyah during the filming of her video, moved to dismiss the record company’s case on the ground that a company has no right to recover damages for the injury or death of an employee. Supreme Court Justice Carol Emead compared the singer’s relationship to the record company to a professional football player’s with his team, finding Aaliyah was not an employee. “Therefore, Blackground’s negligence cause of action is not an improper attempt by an employer to recover damages incurred as a result of the wrongful death of an employee but is an ordinary negligence claim seeking recovery for damages allegedly arising out of the negligent destruction of a valuable property asset,” Justice Emead wrote in Blackground Records v. Instinct Productions, 0603475/03. The judge noted that Blackground was founded in 1992 by Aaliyah’s uncle, Barry Hankerson, primarily as a vehicle for the then-13-year-old singer’s career. Aaliyah was a 10 percent owner of the company and was closely identified with it. Emead said nothing in the record suggested that Blackground exercised control over Aaliyah’s music or her career in the manner of an employer. In finding that Aaliyah was actually Blackground’s primary asset, the judge cited the 1977 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Laird v. United States, 556 F2d 1365, which found that professional football players’ contracts represent independent and uniquely valuable assets to professional franchises. The judge did grant Instinct’s motion to dismiss Blackground’s claim seeking declaratory judgment of Instinct’s liability under a written agreement between the two companies signed before the music video shoot. Instinct had agreed to assume responsibility for injuries to Aaliyah or any other person involved in the video production. The judge decided the agreement was a standard indemnification clause meant to protect Blackground from third-party actions, not give it a first-party cause of action. Emead did not address an argument raised by Instinct in later filings that challenged Blackground’s characterization of the duty owed to it by the production company. Blackground had argued that Instinct owed it a duty of care in arranging transportation for Aaliyah based on a long, close and trusting relationship between Hankerson and the principals of Instinct, who were aware of the singer’s value to Blackground in terms of current and future profits. Instinct has argued that Blackground’s claim of a close and trusting relationship giving rise to a duty is without merit. The judge declined to rule on the issue because Blackground has not had an opportunity to respond. Blackground was represented by Edward G. Williams of Stewart Occhipinti & Makow. Instinct was represented by David Fromm of Brown Gavalas & Fromm. Aaliyah, 22, was one of the biggest stars on the R&B scene and had just embarked on a movie career. Her full name was Aaliyah Dana Haughton. Eight others were also killed with the singer when their small plane crashed shortly after takeoff from the Bahamas en route to the United States.

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