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State preparing to pay maximum in stage collapse damages

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The state of Indiana is set to forgo costly and lengthy litigation and instead pay the maximum $5 million in damages allowed by law to victims of the Indiana State Fair concert stage collapse, Attorney General Greg Zoeller said Wednesday.

Zoeller disclosed the decision in a written statement while announcing that Kenneth Feinberg, an expert who administered victim-compensation funds following 9/11 and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, will serve as an unpaid consultant on claims associated with the concert tragedy.

Strong winds toppled a state fair stage onto fans waiting to see country band Sugarland perform at the Grandstand Aug. 13, leading to seven deaths and leaving dozens injured.

“We want to move to pay the full $5 million that the state’s law allows as soon as an equitable formula can be devised,” Zoeller said in the statement. “My goal is to focus on the needs of victims and their families while minimizing the expense of lengthy and costly litigation.”

Indiana law caps total damages to a state entity at $5 million — an amount personal-injury lawyers have said is far too low for the injuries and deaths involved.

Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of the victims, including one by Indianapolis law firm Cohen & Malad seeking class-action status in Marion County Superior Court against the state and companies involved in putting on the concert.

On Monday, Zoeller asked a Marion County judge to dismiss that suit, which was filed on behalf of Indianapolis resident Angela Fischer, who says she was emotionally traumatized by the deadly accident.

He said the law firm failed to follow the legal process in suing. He said Fischer's lawyers notified his office with a tort claim Aug. 22 of their plans to sue the state, and then filed suit the same day instead of giving the state the required 90 days to respond to the tort.

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Cohen & Malad Managing Partner Irwin Levin said he has the utmost respect for Feinberg.

“We have been beseeching the state to move as quickly as possible to give full compensation to the victims,” he said. “We hope that Ken Feinberg will encourage the state to increase the fund voluntarily so victims will be paid full compensation, and to do so quickly.”

Because of the state cap, which also limits individual claims to $700,000, several other parties besides the state fair have been named as defendants in the negligence suits.

Among those named are Mid-America Sound Corp., Lucas Entertainment Group LLC, Live 630 Group, Live Nation Touring and ESG Security Inc.

Zoeller said in announcing Feinberg’s role that developing a process to resolve claims would provide victims and families with “certain and prompt payment.”

"In light of the urgency for victims of the State Fair tragedy and the statutory limits on compensation, the advice of Mr. Feinberg who has faced these circumstances before will be invaluable in developing this claims process effectively,” Zoeller said.

Separately, Feinberg also will work with the Indiana State Fair Commission to distribute private donations made to the Indiana State Fair Remembrance Fund.

As of Tuesday, the fund contained $242,404. The tally doesn't include donations expected from a concert by Train and Maroon 5 that was moved from the state fairgrounds to Conseco Fieldhouse.

This story originally ran on IBJ.com. The Indianapolis Business Journal is a sister publication to Indiana Lawyer.

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