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The Night the Luxury Bus Disappeared

By Rebecca Barns

The soft-rock indie group Gayngs, fronted by members of the bands Bon Iver and The Rosebuds, rode into Austin, Texas, on October 8, 2010, to perform at the Austin City Limits Festival. It was to be the grand finale of a tour promoting their first LP, “Relayted,” but they never made it to the stage.

In a heated dispute over an unpaid bill, the driver of their luxury tour bus left town in the middle of the night and headed for Nashville with all of the band’s gear and musical equipment. They had no choice but to cancel, at the last minute, the gig they were scheduled to play for thousands of fans.

Soon after the devastating event, the band’s attorneys, Howell O’Rear ’07 and Chris Vlahos of Riley Warnock & Jacobson filed a complaint in Nashville alleging breach of contract and other tort claims against C.J. Curtsinger and his company, CJ Starbuses. The tour bus company is well known; it proclaims itself “Keeper of the Stars” on its Web site and counts the Allman Brothers, John Mellencamp, and Three Dog Night among its clients.

The band rented a bus and trailer from September 27 to October 10, but the owner demanded that the rental period cover extra days to drop off the band and return to Nashville. The bus company sent a contract with incorrect dates and charges, and a new contract was requested by Gayngs’ manager, Nate Vernon. There was an oral agreement between the band and the bus company in this interim period, and the band paid a sum of $2,939.44. A corrected contract never arrived.

The night before the festival, Curtsinger left a voicemail demanding that the rest of the rental fee be paid. The band’s manager replied that the group needed a revised invoice and rental contract before the balance would be paid. In the middle of the night, voicemails escalated to the point that Curtsinger upped the ante, leaving a message that the tour bus, still loaded with all Gayngs’ equipment, had headed back to Nashville. Vernon attempted to get the bus turned around by calling and trying to meet the bus in another city, but to no avail. Gayngs forfeited the $15,000 performance fee.

The complaint brought by O’Rear and Vlahos charged the tour bus company of engaging in “willful, wanton, malicious and oppressive actions” that led to the band members losing money in fees and travel costs, and suffering damage to their reputations when they were forced to break their engagement. Using emails, voicemails, and testimony, they convinced the jury that the band should be awarded damages.

“Other than the behavior of the defendants, one unusual thing about the trial is that the case actually went to the jury,” says O’Rear. “These days, businesses try to avoid the risk of an adverse jury verdict. Gayngs is an important, influential band with enormous potential, and the jury recognized that they were wrongfully denied a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on a big stage at a major festival.”

O’Rear and Vlahos based a portion of their case on the band’s lost opportunity to play in what many regard as one of the four most important music festivals in the U.S. Bands that impress the Austin crowd stand a good chance to be invited to other festivals. After the jury returned its verdict in favor of the band on all counts, the court entered final judgment in the amount of $270,700 in damages, attorneys’ fees, discretionary costs, and interest.

O’Rear has previous experience representing music publishing and recording companies and protecting intellectual property rights. He also has a behind-the-scenes perspective on the music scene, having worked as a music critic and on Music Row in Nashville before attending the Law School. He is a voting member of the Recording Academy, which awards the GRAMMYS.

O’Rear considers himself fortunate to have experienced a jury trial this early in his career. “The classes and professors at the Law School,” he notes, “prepared me for every issue that popped up during the case.”