The Associated Press September 26, 2011, 8:01PM ET

Fair collapse suit challenges Ind.'s $5M tort cap

An Indiana law that caps the state's liability for damages at $5 million for a single event violates the U.S. and state constitutions and should be thrown out, six plaintiffs suing over the deadly collapse of an Indiana State Fair stage argue in a lawsuit filed Monday.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis on behalf of the estates of three of the seven people killed in the Aug. 13 collapse and three others who were injured seeks class-action status on behalf as many as 70 plaintiffs. The lawsuit said the state liability cap violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment as well as federal laws and the Indiana Constitution.

"If the people who caused the harm are held to account for it, then I guarantee you they will take the safety measures next time to prevent it," said attorney Kenneth J. Allen of Valparaiso, who represents the plaintiffs.

"On the other hand, if they're protected from being held to account, as they are with this kind of cap on damages, then they're not going to take those safety measures and the same kind of thing will happen again and again," Allen said.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller issued a statement saying his office will defend the liability cap. It has brought in victim compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to help distribute the $5 million to victims "fairly and equitably."

"We will not wait for litigation in order to move forward in providing compensation to victims," Zoeller said.

The accident happened as fairgoers awaited the scheduled start of a concert by country music duo Sugarland. Stage riggings collapsed as high winds swept into Indianapolis ahead of a severe storm.

Zoeller's office has received notice of more than 20 lawsuits filed on behalf of the seven victims killed and more than 40 other people who were injured. Zoeller has asked them and their families to file a tort claim form by Nov. 1 to seek a portion of the $5 million. The form can be found at http://www.in.gov/attorneygeneral/2849.htm.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the estates of Tammy Jean Vandam of Wanatah and her partner, Janeen Beth Urschel; Christina Santiago of Chicago and her partner, Alisha Brennon; Alina Bigjohny of Fort Wayne; and Tamara Porter of Hancock County. Porter, Urschel and Brennon were injured when the stage and some of its rigging collapsed amid high winds that swept through the state fairgrounds on Indianapolis' north side.

Separately from the $5 million state liability cap, the State Fair Commission has approved payouts from a relief fund of $35,000 to the families of the seven people killed, $25,000 to injured concertgoers if they were hospitalized at least 10 days; $7,500 if they were hospitalized four to nine days; and $3,000 to those hospitalized for one to three days.

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Ken Kusmer can be reached at http://twitter.com/kkusmer


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