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Deadline arrives for Indiana fair disaster claims

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Victims of the deadly stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair faced a Wednesday deadline to make claims against a $13.2 million settlement offer from the state and two private companies, but it could be weeks before they learn their share of the money and even whether the deal will go forward.

One company that manufactured a stage roof and another that put it up ahead of last summer's fair have until Aug. 15 to determine whether the number of people who filed claims is sufficient to proceed with the settlement, Indiana attorney general's office spokesman Bryan Corbin said.

The proposed settlement offer allows victims and their families to share in the $6 million Indiana is offering only if they agree to clear Mid-America Sound and James Thomas Engineering of any wrongdoing in the Aug. 13 tragedy in which strong winds toppled the stage rigging just before country duo Sugarland was to perform, killing seven and injuring dozens. Under the deal, the victims would also get part of $7.2 million the companies are offering.

Representatives of both companies had no immediate comment, and Corbin said he could not disclose how many claimants would be required for the private settlement to proceed because that was confidential under court rules.

"Ultimately, it is up to the claimants whether to accept the funds, and if enough do, then it is up to the companies to proceed," Corbin said.

Lawsuits filed on behalf of the families of those who were killed and many of those who were injured are pending against Sugarland and companies involved in building the stage and organizing the concert.

"During the legislative session, legislators made it clear that they wanted the attorney general's office to attempt to speed as much money to the victims as possible, and to try to resolve various litigation and indemnification claims involving the State Fair tragedy, if possible. The only way to resolve such claims and accomplish those goals expeditiously was to facilitate a larger public-private settlement," Corbin told The Associated Press in an email.

Private lawsuits could take years to wind their way through court, he noted.

The state operates the state fair commission, and its liability was limited to $5 million by Indiana law. However, the Legislature earlier this year approved a one-time additional payment of $6 million to victims of the accident at last year's fair. That money is the state's share of the joint settlement offer. Families and victims who accepted the initial payments had to agree not to sue the state.

Loyola University law professor Blaine G. LeCesne said victims who accept the settlement, which he called "woefully inadequate," might be giving up more money in the long run.

"The proposed settlement doesn't even adequately cover the claims of the deceased, much less those who were injured," said LeCesne, who is not involved in the case.

But Indianapolis attorney Carl Brizzi, who is representing the widow of Glenn Goodrich, a security guard killed in the collapse, said if the victims don't take the offer on the table, they might end up with nothing.

"The situation is such that at least two of the private defendants are contributing almost their entire policy limits," Brizzi said. "Anyone with a legitimate claim is taking a chance that the funds will be exhausted after the participating plaintiffs settle."

The attorney general's office spokesman agreed that victims would be gambling if they held out for jury awards.

"There are many other private defendants the claimants can pursue, but relying on the lengthy litigation process to go in front of a jury is ultimately a risky proposition," Corbin said in an email.

LeCesne said he believed the victims would have a strong case and that juries would be sympathetic to their experience, which would tend to increase the potential damage award.

"When you have so many people injured and killed in such a horrific manner, those are very empathetic plaintiffs," he said. "Sometimes awards can be based on a visceral response to the accident."

The victims would have to prove the defendants were negligent in order to prevail in court, he said. But, he added, "Accidents like this don't happen unless someone typically was negligent in their behavior."

One lawyer representing some victims told a legislative committee in February that he estimated the victims had suffered $100 million in damages.

Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, unsuccessfully tried during this year's legislative session to increase the state's liability cap from $5 million, which was set in 1974, to $22 million based on the rate of inflation since then.

DeLaney said Wednesday that the state should have set aside more money for a settlement up front, rather than raised the amount later — something the other defendants can't do.

"I'm very troubled by the way we've handled that," he said.

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