NEW ORLEANS – The family of the late jazz pianist and composer Hilton Ruiz has sued a Bourbon Street dance club, saying he was attacked and beaten there and the club's bouncers failed either to protect him or to help him afterward.
The club's manager denied the accusations, saying "We have no knowledge of that whatsoever."
Ruiz, 54, of Teaneck, N.J., died June 6, about 2 1/2 weeks after he fell in front of the Club Utopia, named as the defendant in the negligence lawsuit filed by his daughter, Aida Ruiz. He excelled in a wide variety of styles from Afro-Cuban rhythms to the blues, and had come to New Orleans to make a video to go with a benefit recording for Hurricane Katrina victims.
"We are very confident there are people out there who are aware of what happened to Mr. Ruiz in that club in the early hours of May 19," attorney Scott Galante said Monday. "We are urging people and pleading with people to come forward to my office or the New Orleans Police Department with their information."
After he had been in the Utopia for several hours, the lawsuit alleges, Ruiz was attacked by several people. The club's security workers "failed to intervene in any meaningful fashion," or to call an ambulance for Ruiz, but instead threw or escorted him out and "abandoned" him even though he was clearly unable to make his way to safety, the suit alleges.
Utopia manager Fred Woodruff said that, as far as he knows, that never happened. He also said that he had not heard about the lawsuit, which was filed last week in Civil District Court.
Woodruff said he has not reviewed the club's security tapes, and police have not asked to see them.
Galante said, "Obviously, it's something we're seeking," but wouldn't comment when asked whether he had asked the club for its tapes.
Ten days before Ruiz was hospitalized, an altercation involving five people inside the Utopia led to a murder just outside, police have said. In that case, a man argued with three women who refused to accept drinks from him, hitting one with a bottle and punching another, and then shot and killed the man who escorted the women outside to wait for an ambulance, police said.
Police have said they first investigated Ruiz's injuries as an attack, but witnesses and other evidence all indicated that Ruiz fell early May 19.
He never regained consciousness.
Police spokeswoman Bambi Hall said the department is cooperating with the family's lawyers, but stands by its investigators' original conclusion. "We can't speak to what Utopia did or did not do," she said.
Mary Howell, the first attorney retained by Ruiz's daughter and ex-wife, also named Aida, said while Ruiz was still alive that his family was convinced that Ruiz had accidentally tripped or fallen.
But the younger Aida Ruiz then retained Galante.