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Divided justices deny State Fair stage collapse appeal

July 1, 2015

Victims who contested a settlement after the 2011 Indiana State Fair stage collapse failed to persuade a majority of Indiana Supreme Court justices to hear their appeal.

Monday’s 3-2 decision to deny transfer in J.P., et al. v. Mid-America Sound, et al., 49A04-1405-CT-207, upheld the constitutionality of Indiana’s civil tort cap of $700,000 per individual and $5 million per event.

The General Assembly approved a dispensation of an additional $6 million to settle claims arising after seven people were killed and scores injured when the stage collapsed under heavy winds at a concert by the country band Sugarland.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a Marion Superior Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of those caps. While a majority of justices denied the petition to grant transfer, Justices Steven David and Brent Dickson would have heard the appeal.

David and Dickson dissented to the denial, “believing the case warrants the Court’s consideration as to whether the Indiana Tort Claims Act’s aggregate liability cap is unconstitutional as applied to the appellants in these particular circumstances where the legislature has increased the amount of money available to the victims yet the appellants are denied the opportunity to participate in any recovery,” according to the order.

Jordyn Polet, a Cincinnati girl injured in the stage collapse, challenged the caps after she rejected a settlement offer. The appeals panel concluded, “The ITCA aggregate liability cap is a rational means to achieve a legitimate legislative goal, and we cannot find its application to Polet unconstitutional.”

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller hailed the decision in a statement Wednesday.

“After the State Fair tragedy, my office in 2011 agreed to distribute the full $5 million Indiana law allows to speed relief to the injured victims and survivors of the seven deceased. State government is not like a private entity; under sovereign immunity, the State cannot be sued for damages except under the limitations and deadlines the Legislature permits. Ultimately the people of Indiana are sovereign, and taxpayers who are blameless in this traumatic disaster ought not be held financially responsible. But the State in 2012 chose to step up and pay an additional $6 million to victims beyond the limits; and my office with thorough research defended the Legislature’s authority,” Zoeller said.  

The state recruited noted victims compensation fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg to oversee and expedite settlement and payment of claims.

The AG’s office continues to represent the state in separate litigation where Mid-America Sound Corp., the stage-rigging assembly company, seeks indemnification to shift its legal bills onto the state. The state opposes this and argues the State Fair cannot indemnify a private company and had no agreement to do so. That case currently is on appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court. Oral argument has not been scheduled.

 

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