Indiana Officials Discuss Claim Payouts in Stage Collapse

By TOM LoBIANCO | September 9, 2011

Only those who were physically injured in last month’s state fair stage collapse and the families of those who were killed will likely get a cut of the $5 million the state is legally liable to pay out, Indiana’s attorney general said Wednesday, dampening the hopes of those who say they were emotionally traumatized by witnessing the event.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller met with victims compensation specialist Kenneth Feinberg on Wednesday to decide how the money will be distributed. Feinberg called the $5 million “very limited” and said he will try to help the state spread it as fairly as possible.

“I’m very confident that working with the attorney general we will come up with a protocol that will be fair, that will be speedy and that will be transparent,” Feinberg said.

Zoeller has not decided yet whether victims who accept money from the claims fund will have to sign a release forgoing legal action against the state. But Feinberg said that it is standard practice to insulate whoever is paying out the money from further legal action.

Strong winds ahead of a thunderstorm sent the outdoor stage rigging plunging onto fans waiting for an Aug. 13 concert by country band Sugarland at the state fairgrounds. Four people died at the scene and three others died later.

Feinberg oversaw victims compensation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the BP oil spill. In those cases he had very specific parameters set for him for who qualified for compensation. He is still working with Zoeller’s office on developing a formula for victims of the state fair stage collapse, although both men said they expect to have something ready soon.

“It’s our mission to have an expedited process to really focus on the needs of the victims rather than thinking of it in terms of strictly a lawyer looking at litigation,” Zoeller said.

Indiana has also hired an outside claims company to manage the claims as they come in, he said.

The state had received 16 tort claims as of Wednesday announcing plans to sue the state. A separate class-action lawsuit was filed last month on behalf of a concertgoer who said she suffered emotionally from witnessing the stage collapse.

State Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis, has said he would like to raise the $5 million cap so victims can get more. But the idea has gained little traction among top Republicans who control the Legislature and governor’s office.

Feinberg is also helping the Indiana State Fair Commission develop eligibility rules and a claims process for the roughly $800,000 that’s been donated to a separate relief fund for the victims.

Feinberg said during a Wednesday afternoon news conference with Commission Chairman Andre Lacy that he expects that they will finalize that process within weeks. But he also noted that the $800,000 in the relief fund is not a tremendous sum of money considering that seven people died and about 40 others were injured.

“That’s not a great deal of money to distributed to everybody who might have a claim. There’s going to have to be some tough decisions made,” he said. “… The question is: Who are the families and the victims most in need of eligibility?”

The state has hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to investigate the collapse.

Scott Nacheman, the vice president of the firm’s Chicago office, said during the news conference that the firm is trying to determine the wind speeds at the time of the collapse.

“That’s a huge factor in our analysis,” he said.

He said the company is trying to determine how much the stage rigging weighed and is evaluating the stage’s bracing and support structures.

Nacheman said he expects it will take company six to eight months to render findings on the collapse’s “true cause and origin.”

A Thornton Tomasetti crew has photographed and catalogued about 525 components of the collapsed stage structure, and the photos will be used to create a structural analysis model to test the stage’s performance under various scenarios. A laser survey of the collapse site has also been completed for work creating a detailed computer graphic of the stage’s post-collapse configuration, he said.

Nacheman said that if needed, that data would allow for the entire collapsed stage to be moved to an indoor site and each component placed in its original post-collapse position.

(Associated Press writer Rick Callahan contributed to this report.)

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