News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

August 20, 2011

2 lawsuits filed by Indiana stage collapse victims

INDIANAPOLIS — Two of what are expected to be many lawsuits were filed Friday on behalf of people injured when wind toppled a stage at the Indiana State Fair, sending metal scaffolding flying into fans waiting for the country band Sugarland to perform.

Indiana caps the state's liability in accidents at $700,000 per person and $5 million total per event, amounts that personal-injury lawyers say are too low in a situation involving so many victims. Six people have died from their injuries, including one Friday, and roughly four dozen more were hurt, many seriously.

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 concert promoter.

"I think there will probably be a large number of defendants listed, just because there's a limited pot of money," said attorney Tom Schultz, a former president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana.

The Valparaiso law firm of Kenneth J. Allen & Associates filed two suits Friday in LaPorte Circuit Court on behalf 42-year-old homemaker Tammy Vandam, who was one of six people killed, and 49-year-old Beth Urschel, who was among the dozens injured. Both women were from Wanatah. Attorney Kenneth J. Allen said the women were life partners.

Spokesman Bryan Corbin said the Indiana attorney general's office would review the suit and file a response. He also said the state had not received any tort claims related to the accident. The other defendants didn't immediately return phone calls seeking comment Friday.

The suits include requests for a court order protecting the wreckage so the firm's investigators can examine it.

Fair Commission member Ted McKinney said at a news conference that victims' families and others would have access to the wreckage. One attorney sent a letter to Gov. Mitch Daniels on Thursday, asking him to issue an executive order keeping the stage and other materials from being removed so victims' families wouldn't have to go to court to preserve it.

"Whoever needs and wants access to the site, has that access to the site," McKinney said Friday.

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.

Ted McKinney promised Friday that the process would be transparent.

But 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."

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

More lawsuits are expected. Dan Chamberlain, a partner at the Indianapolis personal-injury firm of Doehrman Chamberlain, told the Indianapolis Business Journal that 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."

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.

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