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Damage cap limits state's potential losses from concert tragedy

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Total damages the Indiana State Fair could pay victims of last Saturday's concert tragedy would be capped at $5 million—an amount personal-injury lawyers say is far too low for the injuries and deaths involved.

Because of a state law that limits individual damage claims against the state to $700,000 and overall claims to $5 million per event, several other entities besides the state fair might become targets of negligence lawsuits, legal experts say. They could include the designer and builder of the stage or even the promoter of the concert, according to lawyers.

“I think there will probably be a large number of defendants listed, just because there’s a limited pot of money,” said Indianapolis defense lawyer Tom Schultz.

Saturday night’s accident happened when a wind gust estimated at 60 to 70 mph toppled the roof of the stage and the metal scaffolding holding lights and other equipment. The stage collapsed onto a crowd of concertgoers awaiting a show by the country act Sugarland at the fair's grandstand. Five people died and more than four dozen were injured, some critically.

Several people are still hospitalized, including at least two victims with brain injuries.  

Litigation arising from the deadly accident is likely as several local attorneys already have been contacted by family members considering their legal options.

Dan Chamberlain, a partner at the Indianapolis personal-injury firm of Doehrman Chamberlain, said his firm could file suit on behalf of one victim within the next week.

“You’ve got 50 people injured, five who have been killed, and you’ve got $5 million in coverage,” Chamberlain said. “It’s nowhere close to fairly and adequately compensating the families.”

It remains unclear whether anyone had inspected the concert stage that toppled over, or if anyone was supposed to do so.

Fair officials said they have hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to investigate the accident. The firm was involved in a similar investigation of the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

Indianapolis lawyer Mark Ladendorf, who expects to represent at least two families of the victims, said most firms will launch their own investigations.

“We’re going to have to get answers for our clients,” he said. “We succinctly can’t rely on what the government is going to tell us and what someone hired by the government will tell us.”

Under the Indiana Tort Claims Act, lawyers must notify the state entity they intend to sue within 270 days of the accident.  

State fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the fair is self insured against such lawsuits under the Indiana State Tort Claims Act.

He acknowledged to WISH-TV Channel 8 on Wednesday that the fair didn’t follow its own severe weather procedures by failing to inform concertgoers that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning for the area.

Indianapolis meteorologist Paul Poteet told WXIN Fox 59 that fair officials disregarded his warning to delay or cancel the show.

Questions about whether the fair did enough to anticipate a storm have loomed over the event. Some fairs hire their own meteorologists for just such a scenario.

The local law firm of Wilson Kehoe & Winingham LLC has retained a meteorologist and a structural engineering consultant in anticipation of representing family members, firm partner Bruce Kehoe said.

“When you have that type of catastrophe and that kind of loss, it would be unusual for folks not to want to get answers that are difficult to obtain,” he said.

Schultz, the defense lawyer who is a former president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana, expects numerous claims will be filed.

“The question is, is there fault somewhere?” he asked. “Right now, we don’t know.”

This story was originally published on IBJ.com Aug. 18, 2011.

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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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