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Death Toll Rises in Scaffold Collapse; 2 Lawsuits Seek $60M

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

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A sixth victim has died from injuries suffered in the collapse of a 10-story scaffolding stage at the Indiana State Fair, just as another victim has filed the first of what will likely be many lawsuits in the disaster.

The lawsuits, both filed by Beth Urschel, 49, seek more than $50 million in the death of her partner, Tammy Vandam, who was killed instantly in the collapse, and $10 million for Urschel’s own injuries.

 Scaffold collapse

 YouTube screenshot

One blogger called the 10-story scaffolding a “house of cards.” Indiana’s governor blamed a “fluke” in the  weather.

More suits are expected, with the number of defendants expanding, to compensate for Indiana’s cap on state liability in accidents.

Inspection, Standards Questioned

The lawsuit alleges that the steel stage was built without any inspection or permit, was overloaded with equipment, and did not meet the standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It remains unclear whether anyone had inspected the stage that toppled or was supposed to have done so.

The complaint also accuses event organizers of failing to heed warnings of approaching severe thunderstorms reported more than an hour before the collapse.

Indiana OSHA is investigating the Aug. 13 accident, which killed four people immediately and injured dozens of others, many of them seriously.

Videos of the collapse link show the massive steel structure crashing without warning, hurling wreckage into the crowd. The staging, holding lights and equipment, went down in a gust of wind as some 12,000 people awaited the start of a concert by the country duo Sugarland.

College Student is Sixth Victim

One injured victim died the day after the accident, and a 22-year-old college student succumbed Saturday (Aug. 20) to her injuries. Jennifer Haskell, a Ball State University senior, had attended the concert with her best friend, 23-year-old Alina Bigjohny of Fort Wayne, who was one of the four people killed immediately.

It was not clear how many of the injured remained hospitalized. State police have stopped providing updates on the injured, and hospitals have not provided condition reports.

Multiple Investigations Underway

IOSHA is involved, because two of the victims who died were employees of Indianapolis-area companies involved in the event. IOSHA identified the companies as ESG Security and Theatrical Productions Inc.

Meanwhile, fair officials have hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to investigate the accident. The state also hired Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management firm based in Washington, to conduct a “comprehensive, independent analysis of the state fair’s preparedness and response” to the collapse.

Urschel filed her suits Friday (Aug. 19) in LaPorte Circuit Court. She and Vandam were life partners.

‘Where Do You Run?’

“I looked up, and here’s this stage starting to fall,” Urschel recalled in speaking to the press. “Where do you run? Where do you go? You basically pray that you survive.”

Urschel’s injuries included a broken clavicle; tissue damage in her arm; bruising to her midsection; a severed little toe that was reattached, and another toe that was crushed. She said she was still waiting to hear if her kidney was lacerated, and she doesn’t know if she will regain full use of her damaged foot.

 Crowd after scaffolding collapses

 Facebook photo

Panicked concertgoers flee the site of the collapse at the Indiana State Fair.

Urschel’s suit also seeks a temporary restraining order against the state of Indiana, the Indiana State Fair Commission and Live Nation, to preserve the stage and rigging, as well as any documents or other material related to the incident, as evidence in the case.

Defendants named in both suits include Mid-America Sound Corp., Lucas Entertainment Group and Live Nation.

State Approves Site Access

Fair Commission member Ted McKinney said at a news conference that victims’ families and others would have access to the wreckage. One attorney has sent a letter to Gov. Mitch Daniels, requesting an executive order that keeps the stage and other materials from being removed so victims’ families wouldn’t have to go to court to preserve it.

“Whoever needs and wants access to the site has that access to the site,” McKinney said Friday.

McKinney also promised that the process would be transparent.

But one Indianapolis lawyer, who expects to represent at least two victims’ families, said most firms will launch their own investigations.

Indiana caps the state’s liability in accidents at $700,000 per person and $5 million total per event. That is likely to mean widening the net of defendants in future lawsuits to other entities, including the designer and builder of the stage.

“I think there will probably be a large number of defendants listed, just because there’s a limited pot of money,” said attorney Tom Schultz, a former president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana.


Tagged categories: Access; Accidents; Construction; Fatalities; Health and safety; OSHA; Scaffolding

Comment from arieh calahorra, (8/24/2011, 3:10 AM)

Very sad evant. Condolescence to the families.

Comment from Thomas Van Hooser, (8/24/2011, 6:00 AM)

The collapse itself is clear evidence of inadequate engineering and inadequate review of temporary structure plans by the local authority. Poor foul weather planning. Clearly avoidable.

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