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Legal Experts Claim Indiana's $5 Million Liability Cap Too Low for Deadly Stage Collapse

Source: AP

Posted on 22 Aug 2011

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The Indianapolis Business Journal reported that Indiana law limits individual damage claims against the state to $700,000 and overall claims to $5 million per event. Personal injury attorneys say the $5 million cap on liability in accidents is far too low for the number of deaths and injuries involved in the August 13th deadly stage collapse at the state fair.

Legal experts said that could result in several other entities aside from the state fair becoming targets of negligence lawsuits, including the designer and builder of the stage and the promoter of the Sugarland concert.

"I think there will probably be a large number of defendants listed, just because there's a limited pot of money," attorney Tom Schultz said.

A wind gust estimated at 60 to 70 mph toppled metal scaffolding holding lights and other equipment onto fans awaiting a Saturday concert by the country group Sugarland. Six people either died immediately or from their injures and roughly four dozen were injured.

It remains unclear whether anyone had inspected the stage that toppled, or whether anyone was supposed to do so.

Litigation arising from the deadly accident is likely as several local attorneys said they have already have been contacted by families considering their options.

Dan Chamberlain, a partner at the Indianapolis personal-injury firm of Doehrman Chamberlain, said his firm could sue 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."

Fair officials have hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to investigate the accident. The state also hired Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management firm based in Washington to conduct a "comprehensive, independent analysis of the state fair's preparedness and response" to the collapse.

Indianapolis lawyer Mark Ladendorf, who expects to represent at least two victims' families, 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 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 Indianapolis television station WISH 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 WISH that fair officials disregarded his warning to delay or cancel the show.

The local law firm of Wilson Kehoe & Winingham LLC has hired 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, said he expects numerous claims will be filed.

"The question is, is there fault somewhere?" he asked. "Right now, we don't know."