After eight years of legal maneuvering, only one final lawsuit from the deadly 1991 City College rap-show riot still plagues Sean "Puffy" Combs. But just as Puff Daddy's annus horribilis is finally winding down -- the wimpy album sales, the cash-hemorrhaging record label, the rumored payoff to stop that nasty assault charge -- this last bit of business could prove more damaging than all the others combined.
Nicole Levy was one of the hundreds trapped in the City College gym's stairwell on December 28, 1991, standing helplessly as her friend Sonya Williams was trampled to death in the panic. Nine people died and 29 were injured at the benefit basketball game and concert, which promoter Puffy and headliner Heavy D had oversold to almost double the gym's capacity. Now Levy claims the trauma triggered her own Graves' disease, a thyroid condition often brought on by stressful events. Radioactive-iodine treatments have failed to cure her, she says; her complaint lists blurred vision, fatigue, hair loss, and heart palpitations.
A trial is set for State Supreme Court on December 2 -- the first jury date to come out of the riot. Levy's lawyers have told Puffy they'll drop the suit for $2 million, more than any sum he's paid to other individual plaintiffs. They can ask for that much not only because Puffy has deeper pockets now but because they don't expect his bad-boy rep to play well before his peers: Jurors would learn that Williams and Levy were once friends with Puffy; they might also hear about a cop's deposition claiming Puffy and two women were standing around handling money as the crisis mounted. An amateur video is said to show Puffy giving first aid to victims once the stairway doors opened -- but there's no indication that the show was stopped once the trouble started.
Combs's lawyer, Mark Goidell, won't discuss pretrial negotiations. Levy's lawyer, Peter De Filippis, says that even Puffy's medical expert has said the riot probably triggered Levy's illness -- a claim opposing counsel refused to comment on. "I know I'll always have this condition," says Levy, now 26. "It has to be monitored, or I could go blind or have to have a limb amputated."
In today's Puffy-permeated universe, Levy can't help but notice the target of her litigation. "I think, Oh, isn't he living the life while so many people have suffered," she says. "I'm not really a rap person. Not anymore."