The state of Indiana says it will appeal a ruling that could leave it responsible for millions of dollars in damages relating to the 2011 Indiana State Fair stage rigging collapse. The decision from the Court of Appeals could transfer responsibility for Mid-America Sound's civil and defense costs to the state.
March 30, 2015
Indianapolis, Ind. — The State of Indiana will appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court a ruling today by the Court of Appeals that a stage rigging company could shift its liability for the State Fair disaster to the fair itself and the public. The State notes it previously paid out its obligations to stage-rigging collapse victims up to the statutory limits.
In a 2-1 decision, an Indiana Court of Appeals panel ruled today in an appeal brought by Mid-America Sound Corp. against the State. Reversing the trial court's ruling last year in favor of the State on summary judgment, the Court of Appeals majority today ruled Mid-America can argue “indemnification” from liability in the August 2011 stage-rigging collapse that caused seven fatalities and multiple injuries. That means if the private company later prevailed in trial court, then the liability would be shifted from the company onto the State Fair Commission, and the State potentially could have exposure for an undetermined amount, inconsistent with the limits of the Tort Claims Act. The Court of Appeals sent this case back to the trial court.
“While we respect the Court of Appeals panel, we strenuously disagree with this ruling and we plan to petition the Indiana Supreme Court to review the case and overturn the decision. Our position is Indiana law is clear that the State cannot indemnify a private party, nor was there any agreement here to do so, and we will continue to fight the stage rigging contractor's attempt to shift its legal responsibility for the State Fair tragedy onto the public,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said.
The Court of Appeals did not enter any injunction or judgment against the State, so the State does not need to ask for a stay during the appeal.
Mid-America Sound supplied and oversaw the assembly of the stage rigging that collapsed August 13, 2011; and after the disaster Mid-America was named as defendant in private lawsuits filed by victims. On March 10, 2014, the Marion County Superior Court ruled on summary judgment that the State Fair Commission is not responsible for indemnifying – or assuming the legal responsibility for – the private company against victims' lawsuits, but Mid-America appealed that ruling to the Indiana Court of Appeals.
On Jan. 12, the three-judge Court of Appeals panel heard oral argument in the lawsuit captioned Polet et al. v. Mid-America Sound Corp. et al., although the litigants here were Mid-America and the State only. Solicitor General Thomas M. Fisher appeared for the Attorney General's Office and John C. Trimble represented the State Fair Commission. The State had urged the Court of Appeals to affirm the trial court's summary judgment ruling of last year against Mid-America and not overturn it. Among the State's arguments: Even assuming the State could indemnify – which the State argued is never allowed by law – there was never a willing agreement with Mid-America to do so. The Attorney General's Office noted that numerous other states take the same legal position, that a state government cannot indemnify.
The two majority members of the Indiana Court of Appeals panel reversed the trial court's ruling on summary judgment on the question of whether the company can be indemnified, and sent the case back to the trial court for trial. One appeals court judge issued a dissenting opinion finding in favor of the State and concluding the State Fair Commission should be immune from Mid-America's indemnity claim.
The collapse of stage rigging during a windstorm prior to a scheduled concert at the State Fair grandstands resulted in seven fatalities and multiple injuries. Injured victims and the estates of the deceased filed lawsuits against numerous defendants – including Mid-America, the performing group Sugarland, other private companies and the State of Indiana – that later were consolidated into one case by the Marion County Superior Court.
Four months after the disaster, in December 2011, the State, represented by the Attorney General's Office, reached a settlement with 62 collapse victims and paid out the State's full $5 million in liability, the maximum allowed under Indiana's tort claim cap. The plan for distributing the $5 million was developed by the AG's Office with the guidance of Kenneth Feinberg, the compensation expert who designed compensation plans for victims of 9/11 and the Gulf Oil Spill – and who more recently oversaw payment efforts for victims of the Boston Marathon tragedy and GM ignition switch recall. State Fair victims who accepted settlement payment under the Feinberg Plan in 2011 waived any future litigation against the State.
One year after the initial $5 million settlement, the State of Indiana in December 2012 distributed another $6 million in supplemental relief that the 2012 Legislature had approved for victims. The 59 who accepted supplemental payment signed a waiver releasing the State from any claim of indemnification. The elimination of indemnification liability exposure was a specific condition the Legislature attached to the supplemental fund. In total, the State in the two phases paid $11 million in public funds to State Fair victims, not counting private charitable efforts. Private lawsuits between the victims and private entities have continued, with some of the parties reaching private settlements with each other.
“My office put the victims first by fully paying out the State's maximum $5 million liability, consulting with the nation's leading victim compensation expert, Kenneth Feinberg, on the plan to distribute it and working with the Legislature to provide another $6 million in public funds to assist victims further. As the guardian of tax dollars, the State is adamant that it will not and cannot assume the current and future legal bills of this private company for the company's conduct,” Zoeller said.
Zoeller added that he agreed with the dissenting opinion that states: “The bottom line is this: The legislature alone decides when State entities can and will be subject of suit.”
In a separate case, the Attorney General's Office on Jan. 14 successfully defended the State in a legal challenge to Indiana's tort claim caps filed by one plaintiff who was injured in the State Fair disaster. In that case, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the State that the tort claim caps of $700,000 per individual and $5 million per incident are constitutional.
Source: State of Indiana