Attorney General Greg Zoeller has tentatively linked $6 million for victims of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse to a settlement offer from two of the companies involved in the incident, which killed 7 people.
Zoeller proposed a deal Friday in which fair victims would get a piece of the recently allotted $6 million only if they agree to clear Mid America Sound and James Thomas Engineering, Inc., of any wrongdoing. In return, they will also see a portion of $7.2 million the companies are offering.
He said the offer expires July 13, and if too few plaintiffs agree to the terms, he would free up the state money to be distributed without the connection to the private settlement.
Last year, the state paid out $5 million to victims, the maximum allowed by state law, with the help of national victim claims expert Kenneth Feinberg. Lawmakers approved the additional $6 million for the victims earlier this year amid a push by Democrats to increase the state payout cap.
During a press conference, Zoeller repeatedly called the offer an "opportunity" for victims to get money sooner than they would if they battled in court.
Zoeller declined to offer specific details, such as which plaintiffs were agreeable to the trade-off and whether the state had approached the two companies or the companies sought help.
"At this stage we have at least two (parties), the private defendants, that are willing to participate," Zoeller said. "I think we're hopeful, having spoken to the lawyers for the plaintiffs, the victims, that we'll have some participation, but it's yet to be seen," Zoeller said.
Attorney Kenneth J. Allen says Zoeller's plan seems like a "payoff" to protect the companies. Allen represents the families of three people who died in last August's incident, as well as others who were injured.
He said Zoeller's proposal blatantly "ties the hands" of the victims.
"It sure sounds to me like the state is attempting to provide special protection to these private corporations, and that is forbidden under our state constitution," Allen said.
House Ways and Means chairman Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, pushed through the additional state money earlier this year. When lawmakers were debating the additional money they never talked about including Mid America Sound, James Thomas Engineering or any other private interest in the state's offer.
"The private settlement is none of our business, in my mind," he said.