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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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  1. Well, maybe it's because they are unelected, and, they have a tendency to strike down laws by elected officials from all over the country. When you have been taught that "Democracy" is something almost sacred, then, you will have a tendency to frown on such imperious conduct. Lawyers get acculturated in law school into thinking that this is the very essence of high minded government, but to people who are more heavily than King George ever did, they may not like it. Thanks for the information.

  2. I pd for a bankruptcy years ago with Mr Stiles and just this week received a garnishment from my pay! He never filed it even though he told me he would! Don't let this guy practice law ever again!!!

  3. Excellent initiative on the part of the AG. Thankfully someone takes action against predators taking advantage of people who have already been through the wringer. Well done!

  4. Conour will never turn these funds over to his defrauded clients. He tearfully told the court, and his daughters dutifully pledged in interviews, that his first priority is to repay every dime of the money he stole from his clients. Judge Young bought it, much to the chagrin of Conour’s victims. Why would Conour need the $2,262 anyway? Taxpayers are now supporting him, paying for his housing, utilities, food, healthcare, and clothing. If Conour puts the money anywhere but in the restitution fund, he’s proved, once again, what a con artist he continues to be and that he has never had any intention of repaying his clients. Judge Young will be proven wrong... again; Conour has no remorse and the Judge is one of the many conned.

  5. Pass Legislation to require guilty defendants to pay for the costs of lab work, etc as part of court costs...

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