By Linda Evans and Bill Evans
As is the norm for any tragic event on American soil, first there are the stories of immense heroism, then the finger pointing begins and soon after the lawsuits and gag orders…and the Indiana State Fair stage collapse of August 13 is no exception. Here we are, 10 days after the tragic collapse as we say goodbye to the 7th and latest victim: Meagan Toothman, 24, a cheerleading coach from Ohio.
In this tragedy’s wake there have been no less than three lawsuits already filed with another being prepped: the first two, filed on Friday on behalf of survivor Janeen Beth Urschel and her partner Tammy VanDam, who died of her injuries, seeks damages of $50 million for VanDam’s estate and $10 million plus punitive damages for Urschel. The defendants named include Mid-America Sound Corp. of Greenville, Ind. (the providers of the stage, lighting and audio), Live 360 Group (the booking agency) and Ticketmaster owners, Live Nation Entertainment who are listed as the event promoters. In the case of VanDam, they have also named the state of Indiana. Note that under Indiana law, the state’s liability is capped at a maximum of $5 million per accident.
The third is a class action lawsuit that was filed on Monday, August 22 on behalf of all victims of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse but naming Angela Fischer, who was attending the Sugarland concert. According to their press release, the attorneys at Cohen & Malad, LLP claim that Fischer’s boyfriend got her out of harms way as the stage collapsed, but that she witnessed the “graphic and horrific” aftermath, including the death of another concert-goer citing “emotional distress.” The lawsuit names the State of Indiana, the State Fair Commission, Mid-America Sound, Indiana State Police, Live Nation, and all those associated with putting on the show. The class action lawsuit also alleges that there were defects in the design and manufacture of the Supertruss load bearing roof structure. The class action lawsuit was filed in Marion County Superior Court and has been assigned to Judge Theodore M. Sosin but law experts have been reported by other news outlets as saying it’s somewhat unusual for a class action claim and will be a challenging one because they’re not talking physical injuries but emotional ones.
According to the Indianapolis Star a fourth lawsuit is in its preliminary stages on behalf of security guard Glenn Goodrich, who was killed by the falling structure.
As is too often the case with the U.S. civil law system, the lawsuits seek to do a lot more than just compensate the injured and families of those killed. Lawyers for Urschel and the estate of VanDam have made it clear that they intend to use the legal action to force changes in the rights of same-sex couples in the state of Indiana and in the case of Fischer, damages are being sought on behalf of someone who escaped the incident without physical injury. Under the logic presented in the class action, everyone attending the concert is a potential “victim” and eligible for damages. However, class-action lawsuits have to get over a couple of legal hurdles before they are allowed to proceed unlike a suit filed by on on behalf of a specific person or established entity. In the case of an individual or company suing someone, the only legal qualification for filing is the ability to pay a lawyer.
In an event like this in which multiple parties are named as defendants, the doctrine of “deep pockets” comes into play. In this case, the venue was the State of Indiana whose liability is capped by law and plaintiffs’ ability to collect damages from equipment providers may be limited to the amount of insurance the company has. In the case of Mid-America–according to the latest edition of the Event Production Directory published by Timeless Communications–that amount is somewhere between $1 million and $3 million. The booking agency (Live 360) and promoter (Live Nation), the staging provider and manufacturer and the state of Indiana have already been named. So far, no suit has named the union (IATSE) whose members manned the stage and one of whom–51-year-old Nate Byrd is among the dead. SoundProLive has received copies of communications to union members from Local 30 officials urging them not to talk to the media about this event. In short, they are “lawyering up.”
Of the seven who have died to date, only the estate of one has actually filed and specified damages and those come to $50 million. There are six more who died and dozens who were seriously injured. This is going to be expensive and itwill go on for a long time before the dust settles.
But, before that even happens, we can expect that the live event production industry will be changed forever. Some audio companies are already refusing to provide climber truss for any of their clients as they see the potential for their insurance costs to skyrocket. Some smaller staging providers may well be put out of business by the inevitable increase in insurance premiums throughout the industry and across “shop lines.” Increases in costs for everything from insurance to actual tickets are widely expected as is increased governmental attention to our industry and probably increased regulation.
This next part is opinion: The best thing the Live Event Industry can do right now to influence what effects this event will have on the future of the business is to organize a task force made up of heavy-hitters from the audio, lighting, staging and video worlds and fronted by a “name” production manager who knows how to communicate with the media and who has the credentials needed to be taken seriously by legislative committees and the mainstream consumer media.