Zoeller: $6 million in supplemental relief distributed to State Fair victims

The State of Indiana this week is distributing $6 million in supplemental relief payments to eligible victims of the Indiana State Fair disaster. The 59 claimants including estates of seven deceased victims will share in $6 million the Legislature approved when it assigned the Attorney General’s Office the duty of distributing the funds.

“It was appropriate that the Indiana legislators decided to provide additional financial assistance to victims of the State Fair tragedy in light of all that victims have endured. Developing and implementing an equitable method for allocating the funds was a complicated process, but our objective that victims receive expedited funds without years of litigation was accomplished,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said.

This marks the second and final phase of state government payment to victims of the August 13, 2011, stage-rigging collapse before a concert during the Indiana State Fair. The $6 million supplemental relief combined with an earlier round of payment last year brings the total public relief to State Fair victims to $11 million.

In the first payment phase, in December 2011, the State paid out the entire $5 million available through its tort claim fund – meeting the cap set by state law – to 62 of the 114 claimants who had filed claims for injuries or fatalities stemming from the stage-rigging collapse.

Mindful of additional medical costs to injured State Fair victims since then, however, the Legislature in March passed a new law, House Enrolled Act 1376, that directed payment of another $6 million to eligible claimants by January 2013. The new law provided that the estates of the seven deceased victims who previously received approximately $300,000 each would receive approximately another $400,000 each, bringing their totals to $700,000 per estate, the amount allowed for death claims under the supplemental legislation.

Also, since the injured claimants with non-permanent injuries had approximately 65 percent of their out-of-pocket medical bills reimbursed last year in the first round of relief, the new law said that the second round of relief could provide payment for their remaining medical costs after insurance.

In providing $6 million for the second phase of relief, the Legislature authorized the Attorney General’s Office to set up a process which could include arbitration to distribute the funds to claimants – particularly those with permanent injuries – according to the guidelines in HEA 1376. The arbitration panel – William Baten of Indianapolis, Denise Page of Indianapolis and Eugene Stewart of Brookville – considered additional information such as medical bills and insurance-payment records claimants submitted. The panel also conducted in-person hearings with some claimants and their attorneys who wanted to offer evidence of permanent injury or ongoing medical costs. Of the 62 claimants eligible, all but three chose to participate.

Based on that evidence and the new law’s parameters, the independent arbitration panel evaluated the new information and calculated the supplemental amount each claimant would receive. About two-thirds of the amounts were adjusted due to insurance payments to claimants. This week, state payments totaling $6 million are being distributed to claimants through electronic deposits and checks. All 59 who opted to participate received some level of payment from the State. Since claimants previously agreed to accept the State’s settlement offer, the amounts are final and cannot be appealed.

Zoeller said arbitration allowed claimants and their attorneys to bring forward information about medical costs and obtain supplemental funds in a non-adversarial proceeding far more rapidly than is the case in traditional litigation.

“The State of Indiana has a different obligation to the public than a private corporation. In the public sector, there are more effective ways than lawsuits to equitably resolve disputes, and I am a proponent of using alternative dispute resolution through arbitration and mediation to ensure claims are handled fairly and without years of litigation,” Zoeller said. He also commended the consortium of claimants’ attorneys who diligently represented their injured clients and worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office and the panel throughout the arbitration process.

“Consistent with the core Hoosier value of helping neighbors in need, the Indiana General Assembly structured the $6 million supplemental fund to provide expedited relief to victims of the State Fair tragedy, and the Attorney General has carried out this distribution assignment promptly by putting victims first,” Senator Luke Kenley said. Kenley, R-Noblesville, is chair of the Senate Tax and Fiscal Policy Committee and was one of the architects of the supplemental compensation legislation.

“I believe the arbitration process commissioned by the Attorney General’s Office provided a fair and effective means to distribute the supplemental relief funds in a timely manner. In particular, I appreciated that the arbitration panel was able to assess all of the claims on an individual basis, and provide in-person hearings to any claimant who wanted one, within a relatively short period of time – particularly when compared to the timetable of traditional litigation. The arbitrators then applied these specific findings in accordance with the framework established by the Legislature,” said William Baten, chair of the arbitration panel.

In the $5 million first phase of relief in 2011, Zoeller’s office was assisted by Kenneth Feinberg, the nationally renowned expert who designed victim compensation plans after 9/11 and the BP Gulf oil spill and who donated his services to the State. Although Feinberg was not directly involved this year in developing the $6 million second phase since the new law already determined the parameters, Zoeller said the guidance Feinberg provided served Indiana well.

“We learned a great deal from Ken Feinberg’s previous work in designing a process that distributes funds equitably and treats victims with dignity, and we applied his insights here in concluding this supplemental round of relief on schedule,” Zoeller said. Next month was the deadline in the new law to distribute supplemental relief.

Although claimants accepting payments had signed releases and agreed to not pursue further legal action against the State of Indiana, victims and their attorneys still can proceed with their private litigation against numerous other private defendants regarding the State Fair stage collapse. Zoeller’s office as legal counsel to the State of Indiana will continue to represent the State’s legal interests in various legal actions arising from the disaster.