The battle between the state of Indiana and event provider Mid-America Sound Corporation may be coming to an end soon over the deadly stage collapse at Indiana’s 2011 state fair that occurred prior to a concert by country music duo Sugarland. The state’s Supreme Court heard arguments on Wednesday between attorneys for the company, who argued that an “indemnification clause” in its contract with the state shifts liability onto the state, and Indiana State Fair Commission attorneys arguing that the clause was never explicitly agreed to, considering it to be dubious fine print. High winds in August of that year toppled a stage that Mid-America had set up, killing seven people and injuring over 100. Marion Superior Court Judge Theodore Sosin ruled in March 2014 that Mid-America could not shift its liability onto the state; however the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled by 2-1 margin that the company could use the indemnification clause as an argument in trial. The commission appealed that ruling, leading to Wednesday’s arguments.
In the hearing, Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher called the clause “a gotcha claim” that has the potential to transfer “limitless liability” to the state. Fisher told the Court, “This has all been done by invoice, and the printing on the back of an invoice. There is no negotiation on any of this.” Mid-America inserted the clause into its contract after the company attempted to halt a 2002 state fair concert due to the threat of severe weather, but the commission refused, citing that it was their discretion whether or not to cancel the concert. The clause remained part of the annual contracts since then. Indiana’s Attorney General Greg Zoeller released a statement saying that Mid-America’s clause, “violates the clear principle of sovereign immunity behind the Tort Claims Act and other statutes the Legislature passed, which limit the financial liability that taxpayers and state government face.” Mid-America’s attorney, Robert MacGill however, draws a “fundamental distinction” between the state of Indiana and the commission, saying that “The State Fair Commission is largely a commercial enterprise.”
The case may or may not end at the state’s Supreme Court, depending on whether or not the appeal is considered. If the Court declines the appeal, the case will head back to a jury trial in Marion County, however MacGill acknowledged that even a favorable ruling will still make for difficulties, saying that “we have a lot of work to do, and we have to prove a case.” If the Court accepts the case, and depending on the ruling, the state could be held liable for an undisclosed amount of damages. The total amount of December’s settlement between Mid-America and victims and families has remained under seal, although a law firm representing the victims claimed that it settled with 19 different companies, Mid-America included, for a total of $50 million. The firm mentioned the $11 million the state has already paid to victims as part of the total. Indiana paid the maximum $5 million under the Tort Claims Act and the Indiana General Assembly allocated an addition $6 million in compensation to the victims.
ABC News/Associated Press – Rick Callahan
The Indianapolis Star – Jill Disis