Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said Wednesday that he wants to quickly pay $5 million -- the maximum allowed under Indiana's government liability law -- to victims of the State Fair stage collapse last month.
Zoeller's announcement came the same day fair and state officials announced plans to expedite victim payments from a separate "relief fund" containing more than $800,000 donated by private individuals and businesses in the wake of the tragedy that left seven dead and dozens injured.
But exactly how money from the two funds will be distributed, who will be eligible for payments and when the money will start flowing are among the many questions still unanswered.
And for victims struggling with medical bills, funeral expenses and injuries that prevent them from earning a living, every day that passes is a growing hardship, said Indianapolis attorney Carl Brizzi, who is representing Heather Goodrich, the widow of security guard Glenn Goodrich. The primary breadwinner for Heather and the couple's two young boys, Glenn Goodrich was one of those killed in the Aug. 13 collapse.
"How is the light bill going to get paid?" Brizzi said of the family. "How is she going to buy groceries for her boys?"
Plans to expedite relief payouts are a positive sign, Brizzi said. But state officials acknowledged they still don't know how the distribution will proceed.
The state is getting help on that from nationally recognized victim-assistance expert Kenneth Feinberg, a New York lawyer who helped develop the processes for assistance paid out to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Virginia Tech campus shootings and last year's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Andre Lacy, chairman of the State Fair Commission, said Feinberg is donating his services to both the commission and the attorney general's office. He
will help the commission distribute money in the relief fund and help the attorney general divvy up the $5 million from a self-insurance fund used to pay liability claims against the state.
State law limits the government's liability to $700,000 per injury or death. But the more important limit in the stage collapse is that all claims from a single incident are capped at $5 million.
"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 in a statement issued by his office.
Bryan Corbin, Zoeller's spokesman, said the move to pay out the $5 million is not an admission of negligence on the part of the state. The plan will, however, help minimize "the expense of lengthy and costly litigation."
Corbin said the plan to distribute the full amount of the state's potential liability without litigation is unusual, but he could not say if it had ever been done in Indiana. He also was unable to say Wednesday afternoon if the state had ever paid out the full $5 million in a liability claim.
"This is a way to get early payments to the victims," Corbin said. "Once the $5 million limit is reached, that is all there is."
But Valparaiso-based attorney Kenneth J. Allen, who is representing the families of two people killed in the stage collapse, said he plans a court challenge to the $5 million cap. He said the limit disincentivizes safety and is unrealistic when an incident involves a large number of people.
"The law as it is written," Allen said, "makes it more economical to be careless and pay for the death and devastation that you cause than to be careful and prevent harm."
Corbin said the attorney general can only do what state law allows, and any changes in the cap would have to be approved by the legislature.
The liability money, which typically is used to pay out damages determined by a court, is separate from the relief fund, which is made up of donations meant to help victims.
In the 18 days since the deadly stage collapse, hundreds of individuals and businesses have donated more than $800,000 to the private relief fund set up at the Central Indiana Community Foundation, said Brian Payne, the foundation's president and CEO.
Lacy and Payne said Wednesday that the private relief fund money is being transferred to a new State Fair Relief Fund established this week by executive order of Gov. Mitch Daniels. The change was made because laws governing nonprofit organizations like the foundation created roadblocks that would slow the distribution of the assistance.
"The state," Payne explained, "does not have those same restrictions."
Lacy said Feinberg will also be donating his assistance to devise plans for getting that money distributed as quickly as possible. Lacy could not offer a timeline but promised to act quickly.
"I can pledge, on behalf of the commission," Lacy said, "that we are going to try to get at least something to the victims as quickly as we can."
That was good news to Brizzi and Heather Goodrich.
"This would be a nice cushion," Brizzi said, "so that (immediate financial) worry could be alleviated while we work through some of the other issues."
Money in that fund -- $263,000 as of Wednesday, Lacy said -- will be supplemented in the new state fund with about $550,000 donated by the bands Maroon 5 and Train. The two groups, scheduled to play at the fair in the days after the stage collapse, donated their fees to the fund after the show was moved to Conseco Fieldhouse.
Payne said other donations have come from across Indiana and the U.S. Two young girls who set up a lemonade stand in Speedway during last weekend's MotoGP race donated $120, he said, while Pacers owner