While celebrating the Super Bowl in my hometown of Indianapolis recently, I saw a television news story about the stage rig collapse at the outdoor Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair last summer. Although local network affiliates, out of courtesy for the victims’ loved ones, stopped showing video of the structural failure almost immediately after it happened, most of us in other parts of the country saw the footage over and over: As ominous, dark-purple clouds rush in over the fairgrounds, lightning dances across the sky and winds gust to 70 mph as the stage rig collapses under the assault.
According to new reports, seven people were killed, including two stagehands, and more than 40 others were injured. About a dozen of those were seriously injured in the collapse, with the rest mostly suffering cuts and broken bones.
Investigations turned up multiple safety violations. The state’s fair commission is accused of failing to evacuate the crowd in a timely fashion and insisting on the use of a rig that was deemed unsafe in lightning or in winds exceeding 40 mph. Mid-America Sound is being accused of failing to build a cross brace in the rig that is supposed to be industry standard. Sugarland stands accused of refusing to postpone the concert in their rush to get to Iowa’s state fair the next day. These accusations presuppose the alleged culprits knew or should have known that a violent storm would hit the stage that night.
Lawsuits quickly followed the tragedy, including one filed in November on behalf of 48 victims against Sugarland and concert producers for failing to cancel the show, and, inexplicably, against the stagehands. The state settled with 63 claimants in December to the tune of $5 million of Indiana taxpayers’ money. More lawsuits loom on the horizon.
The investigation’s narrative points to multiple events leading up to the collapse that could have prevented the fatalities, but five minutes before the rig fell, an announcer told the crowd to take cover due to the storm. Few heeded the warning, and about 19 people were either killed or severely injured. Many others, without a doubt, hold some responsibility for this tragedy, but what responsibility must those hurt or killed own? They chose not to seek shelter from a lightning storm nor evacuate when encouraged by event organizers to do so.
I know I’m going to be accused of blaming the victim, but that’s not what this column is about. Terrible tragedies happen every day, and the line between freak accident and legally liable incident seems to be blurring with each one. That rig did not just fall down. It was ripped down by a perfect example of the extreme weather conditions Hoosiers have lived with all their lives — flat farmland for hundreds of miles in and around Indiana provides the perfect runway for severe weather to gain momentum as it bulldozes across the plains.
Hoosiers know what a dangerous sky looks like, and we’ve been taught since infancy when to take cover. Sometimes even when we do take cover, the unthinkable happens. Severe weather in Indiana has killed people in schools, churches, nursing homes and even their own basements. When entire buildings and sometimes city blocks are ripped to their foundations in a flash, fatalities are a sickening consequence. Yet lawsuits only seem to fly when an apparent perpetrator with deep pockets is in the mix.
The parents of George Aldrich Jr., who fell in a gap between the two Maroon Creek bridges on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, sued the Colorado Department of Transportation in November, claiming it was negligent for failing to properly maintain the structure and for inadequate safety measures. It’s true that there’s a gap between the two bridges, and it’s true that there’s no sidewalk on the south side of Highway 82 there. But it’s also true that lots of people cross that bridge every day, and all had done so safely until that night. Lawyers for the two sides are currently negotiating a settlement, to be paid with Colorado taxpayers’ money.
It seems like every time an accident happens, we all look for someone to blame. Can’t an accident simply be an accident without liability attached? Lawsuits like these make me wonder how much my life is worth, and if it’s the same amount for everyone or if there’s some sort of equation used to valuate one individual versus another. Whatever the number, financial settlements don’t alleviate anyone’s grief.
Like most in Aspen, my heart goes out to the Aldrich family. I know their suffering must be immense. But I don’t understand why CDOT is to blame for George’s death, as it couldn’t have anticipated this tragedy. CDOT added a safety net below the gap last spring, long before the lawsuit was filed. Isn’t ensuring it never happens again the best way to honor George’s memory?
Doug Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.