Indiana has payment plan for State Fair tragedy

Bryan Cohen Dec. 6, 2011, 2:00pm


INDIANAPOLIS (Legal Newsline) - Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller announced the payment plan on Tuesday for distributing the maximum $5 million in tort claim funds to victims of the Indiana State Fair tragedy.

The amount the state has available for victims of the Aug. 13 incident is capped at $5 million. The protocol of payment guarantees that at least $300,000 will be presented to the estates of each of the seven deceased victims of the stage collapse.

Sufficient funds remain to compensate the 58 surviving victims who were among the most badly injured. The computation works out to payments that are approximately 65 percent of the value of medical bills the victims documented when submitting their claims to the state. Each seriously injured victim who submitted medical records will receive a settlement offer.

Zoeller had announced that he would distribute the full $5 million in tort claim funds to victims on an expedited basis. Expediting the process avoids delays and costs from litigation regarding the liability of the state.

Zoeller brought in Kenneth Feinberg, a nationally-recognized victim-compensation expert, who administered victim compensation funds after the Sept. 11, 2011, terror attacks, the BP Gulf oil spill and the Virginia Tech shootings. Feinberg assisted Zoeller's office in devising a protocol for distributing settlement payments to victims of the tragedy.

"No amount of money ever can replace lives lost or alleviate anguish endured by the victims of the Indiana State Fair tragedy," Zoeller said.

"Because state law limits the amount the state can pay to $5 million per incident or $700,000 per individual and we are legally obligated to defend those limits, we had to make extremely difficult decisions about which injured victims would receive payment out of the limited pool of funds available. With the benefit of Mr. Feinberg's expertise, my office has done everything possible to allocate these settlement offers fairly, equitably and humanely."

Claimants and their attorneys have been notified of the state's offers of settlement. They have until Dec. 12 to respond and accept or reject the offers. If any of the offers are rejected, funds allotted for those individuals will be added to those for other claimants who accepted the offers and their amounts will be readjusted. Once offers are accepted and claimants sign a release of liability, the state auditor's office will mail checks or issue electronic funds transfers later in the month.

Zoeller's office administers the state Tort Claim Fund, which is made up of tax dollars.

Priority was given to providing compensation to families of the deceased and the most badly injured as documented through medical records. This meant that there was less available for the less-seriously injured and none for those who claimed non-physical injuries or whose claims could not be documented. Once the $5 million has been exhausted, no payments can be made to remaining individuals who submitted claim forms but were not eligible for distribution under the protocol.

Meanwhile, a recent federal court ruling denied a request by one personal injury lawyer to block the state from distributing the $5 million in tort claim funds. The court found that the distribution of funds to the claimants may proceed. The court's certification of the lawsuit as meeting one legal condition for a class action seeking a declaratory judgment does not affect the settlement offers the state has made to the claimants, many of whom participated through counsel directly in settlement negotiations with Zoeller's office.

The tort claim process of filing a notice with the state applies solely to potential legal actions against state government. The state of Indiana is not a defendant in the separate lawsuit seeking damages that a group of claimants recently filed against a number of private businesses concerning the stage rigging collapse.

In advising Zoeller's office on the tort claim fund, Feinberg donated his expertise at no charge to the state or taxpayers. In addition, Feinberg consulted with another client, the Indiana State Fair Commission, concerning its separate State Fair Relief Fund, which is comprised of private donations that were distributed as charitable payments to victims.

"I greatly appreciate the efforts of Mr. Feinberg, JWF Specialty and those in my office who have worked diligently to craft a dignified response to this tragic circumstance and do justice for the victims," Zoeller said.

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