Attorneys for country duo Sugarland said concertgoers were at least partly to blame for injuries suffered in a stage collapse, drawing a sharp reaction from fans Tuesday and prompting the band’s manager to issue a statement criticizing the finger-pointing.
Members of the band expressed shock and sadness after last summer’s stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair killed seven people and injured dozens more.
But in their response to a civil lawsuit, the band’s attorneys said injured fans “failed to exercise due care for their own safety” and contended some or all of their injuries “resulted from their own fault.”
The comments outraged Haley Waggoner of Cincinnati, who was in the front row with her twin sister when the collapse happened and suffered a concussion that caused headaches and other problems for weeks.
“It disgusts me,” said Waggoner, who has attended eight or nine Sugarland shows. “Through this whole process, I don’t feel like the band cares that much about fans.”
The band’s attorneys also called the high winds that toppled the stage rigging an “act of God” and denied the band had any responsibility for the stage construction or to warn fans.
Waggoner said while the band couldn’t control the weather and didn’t build the stage, she believes Sugarland could have done more to warn concertgoers of the impending danger. She said she’ll never see them live again.
“If they don’t believe in us for something that isn’t our fault, then I don’t want to support them,” she said.
Indianapolis attorney Carl Brizzi, who is representing the widow of Glenn Goodrich, a security guard killed in the collapse, said he was outraged that the band tried to distance itself from the tragedy.
“Sugarland has engaged in a public relations campaign to put the best light on its role in the avoidable tragedy,” Brizzi said in a statement. “And this spin-doctoring of Sugarland’s role in the case is both offensive and outlandish.”
Sugarland attorney James H. Milstone would not elaborate Tuesday on the response to the civil lawsuit. But the band’s manager issued a statement in which the due tried to distance themselves from the claims in court documents.
“Sadly when a tragedy occurs, people want to point fingers and try to sensationalize the disaster,” Sugarland said in a statement Gail Gellman issued to The Associated Press. “The single most important thing to Sugarland are their fans. Their support and love over the past nine years has been unmatched. For anyone to think otherwise is completely devastating to them.”
Another court document, however, casts doubt on the band’s claim that its fans come first. In a Jan. 16 deposition on a lawsuit against the company that built the stage rigging, Indiana State Fair Commission Executive Director Cindy Hoye testified that Sugarland resisted delaying the start of the concert despite threatening weather. Hoye said the band expressed concerns about how a delay would affect the time lead singer Jennifer Nettles needed to warm up and complicate the band’s travel to its next show.
Sugarland tour manager Hellen Rollens told IOSHA investigators that there was no discussion of delaying the show.
The band’s legal response has clearly been designed to shift blame away from the band and back to fair officials, the company that erected the stage rigging and others. An Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration Investigation cited the fair, Mid-America Sound Corp. and the stagehands’ union for violations in connections with the deaths of Goodrich and Nathan Byrd, a stagehand killed when the rigging collapsed.
Two other investigations examining the engineering of the structure and the state’s response are pending.
The state has already paid out $5 million, the maximum allowed under Indiana law, to victims and their families. State lawmakers are considering adding another $5 million to $10 million to that to cover medical bills for those who suffered long-term injuries, but even that wouldn’t be enough to cover future medical costs for the most seriously injured.
That makes Sugarland a natural focus for litigation.
It’s common for bands to be named in lawsuits after injuries or deaths at a show. For example, families of the dead and injured filed 33 lawsuits against The Who after a 1979 stampede in Cincinnati. The Who settled out of court for a total of $2.1 million, plus an undisclosed sum for the family of one victim.
But one attorney involved in the Sugarland lawsuit said the band’s response was strange.
“It’s unusual to put the blame on victims,” South Bend attorney Jeff Stesiak said Tuesday. “The concert wasn’t canceled and they weren’t told to leave. I can’t imagine what the victims did to be at fault.”
He disputed the Sugarland attorney’s claim that an “open and obvious danger” existed before the collapse.
“An open and obvious danger is more like walking along a road and seeing a downed power line and walking over it anyway. The storm wasn’t like that,” Stesiak said.
The blame game isn’t likely to end soon, even as lawmakers and fair officials work to prevent future incidents. A plan to require inspections of all large, temporary outdoor stages is advancing through the Legislature. And fair officials have moved all of this year’s concerts indoors.
Ultimately, a jury may decide where fault lies. Sugarland’s attorneys have requested a jury trial in the civil lawsuit.
Tina Williams of Indianapolis, who attended the concert, said there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“Everyone has a little bit of ownership,” Williams said. “Nobody can predict the weather. It was something that happened. I’m not upset with Sugarland.”
(Associated Press writer Caitlin King in Nashville, Tenn., and researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York contributed to this story.)
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