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Judge grants limited class certification in stage collapse lawsuit

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While she said she doubts the plaintiffs can win their case, U.S. Judge Sarah Evans Barker is allowing limited class certification in a lawsuit challenging the state’s $5 million damage liability cap. Plaintiffs incurred injuries in the Indiana State Fair stage collapse Aug. 13.

In a 28-page ruling, the federal judge in the Southern District of Indiana granted class certification for the limited purpose of determining whether the $5 million cap violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

However, Barker wrote that the court doesn’t believe the plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, given the well-established caselaw on damages caps for tort claims against governmental entities. She denied a preliminary injunction request that sought to both stop the state from settling any tort claims relating to the stage collapse and prevent the state from disbursing any of the $5 million in public funds to the stage collapse victims.

 “Given the severity of the Plaintiffs’ and other similarly situated claimants’ reported injuries, we believe the public interest would not be served by restricting Defendants’ scope of action as Plaintiffs have requested. When compared with the potential deprivation of much-needed money that the claimants are likely to suffer if a preliminary injunction is granted, the balance of hardships tips in Defendants’ favor,” she wrote.

The judge also denied an emergency motion for discovery.

Her ruling comes almost a month after an evidentiary hearing in the case, which Valparaiso attorney Kenneth Allen filed in September on behalf of six plaintiffs who were injured or killed in the stage collapse at the fairgrounds in Indianapolis. This is one of many lawsuits that has been filed in state and federal courts in the three months since the deadly accident.

Barker found that plaintiffs met the class certification numerosity requirement because they could institute individual claims, and joinder of all the parties would be impractical. But the judge determined the plaintiffs fell short of meeting the class certification criteria for commonality in regard to their share of the state’s public fund and because plaintiffs haven’t shown the defendants did or intended to do anything that might connect everyone. Barker found that the named plaintiffs’ claims aren’t all substantially similar for the bulk of the lawsuit, but that they do share a typical focus for the limited purpose of challenging the Indiana cap’s constitutionality.

The judge wasn’t persuaded to involve Rule 23(b) on class certification based on the obvious possibility that some claimants might ultimately be more successful than others, but the plaintiffs do meet the requirements of Rule 23(a) on that limited constitutional question.

“Lastly, although we acknowledge the real merits of Defendants’ Eleventh Amendment and abstention arguments against class certification, our limited certification does not run afoul of these doctrines,” Barker wrote.
 

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  1. Bill Satterlee is, indeed, a true jazz aficionado. Part of my legal career was spent as an associate attorney with Hoeppner, Wagner & Evans in Valparaiso. Bill was instrumental (no pun intended) in introducing me to jazz music, thereby fostering my love for this genre. We would, occasionally, travel to Chicago on weekends and sit in on some outstanding jazz sessions at Andy's on Hubbard Street. Had it not been for Bill's love of jazz music, I never would have had the good fortune of hearing it played live at Andy's. And, most likely, I might never have begun listening to it as much as I do. Thanks, Bill.

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