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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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