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Indiana offers $300K to stage-collapse victims

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The state is offering at least $300,000 to families of each of the seven people who died after a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair, with more available for those whose loved ones spent days hospitalized before their deaths, Attorney General Greg Zoeller said Tuesday.

The rest of the money from the state's $5 million tort fund would go to 58 other people injured Aug. 13 when powerful winds toppled the stage onto fans waiting to see country music group Sugarland. The state also reached a special agreement to pay $500,000 to a 17-year-old boy whose injuries left him paralyzed from the waist down.

If families and victims agree to the payments, they wouldn't be allowed to sue the state. Indiana law caps the state's liability at $5 million, and some victims' families have already filed lawsuits challenging that limit. The offers must be accepted or rejected by Monday.

"Deciding how much to pay the victims was extremely difficult," Zoeller said. "Having recognized the limitations, I'll say that no amount of money can ever replace the lives lost or alleviate the anguish endured by the victims of our state fair tragedy."

Zoeller worked with victims' attorneys and claims expert Kenneth Feinberg, who directed victims' payments after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Gulf Coast oil spill last year and the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.

Lawyers for some of the victims scoffed at the offers Tuesday, but acknowledged that Zoeller's hands were tied.

Lisa Hite suffered head injuries and a fractured heel but was offered about $7,000, even though her medical bills are already six times that amount, let alone her lost wages and future bills, her attorney Mario Massillamany said.

"That's woefully inadequate," Massillamany said. "Unfortunately that's the most they can offer because of the $5 million cap. We pray that the General Assembly is willing to look into this issue to help these injured victims recover some of their economic losses, to try to make the victims whole again."

The state's tort claims law is being challenged by a federal lawsuit filed by attorney Kenneth J. Allen, who represents the estates of three people killed in the collapse along with three women who were injured.

"The State has chosen to proceed with a half-baked process which fails to account for the future consequences caused by its negligence. What about future medical bills, impairment and wage loss?" Allen said in a statement Tuesday. "The State's plan considers none of these things in a careful and prudent fashion. Instead it is a series of rash decisions based on scant evidence."

Zoeller and Feinburg developed a model, based in part on medical expenses submitted to the state, that suggested paying a baseline $300,000 for each of the seven victims who died. Those who suffered physical injuries would have 65 percent of their expenses covered.

Feinberg noted that it was fairly common for victims of tragedies such as the stage collapse to receive only partial coverage for their medical bills. Money from rejected offers would be redistributed to victims using a system that would first cover the rest of their medical expenses and pay above that for those who died and suffered physical injuries.

Zoeller said the state's $5 million liability cap should be debated during the 2012 legislative session. If lawmakers do raise the cap on payouts, the victims of the stage collapse could again apply for more compensation from the state, Zoeller said, though he wouldn't say whether the Legislature should raise the limit.

"I'm not ready to say what I would recommend," he said.

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