Fund doesn't cover all Indiana stage collapse injuries

October 31, 2011

By The Associated Press

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(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
A remembrance is fixed to the fence in front of the Grandstand at the Indiana State Fair following a stage collapse.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Some people injured when high winds toppled stage rigging at this summer's Indiana State Fair aren't eligible for money from a charity fund for victims because they weren't admitted to the hospital, officials said.

Under a protocol set up with help from a victims' compensation specialist, money from the State Fair Relief Fund is given out based solely on how much time a victim spends at the hospital, The Indianapolis Star reported. That means people who were treated at the emergency room but didn't spend a night in the hospital do not qualify.

Officials acknowledge the system isn't perfect, but say the line had to be drawn somewhere because of limited money in the fund, which totals about $970,000.

Lisa Hite suffered a head injury in the Aug. 13 accident that killed seven people and injured more than 40 others and won't be able to work for at least 2½ months, her lawyer told the Star. But Hite doesn't qualify for the fund because she wasn't admitted to a hospital.

"She may actually end up receiving less from these funds than someone who spent a night at the hospital but didn't miss a day's work," attorney Scott Starr said.

Enoch Vinnegar, a stagehand who was up in the rigging when it collapsed, had surgery to repair a knee injury. But the surgery was performed after the fund's Oct. 2 deadline for a hospital stay and he initially was in the hospital for only six hours, so he also does not qualify for relief fund money. Vinnegar hasn't worked since the accident, he's uninsured and workers' compensation pays only two-thirds of his wages.

"I've lost almost $7,000," he said.

Victims' compensation specialist Kenneth Feinberg said hiring a medical expert to evaluate claims made to the fund would have been too subjective and time-consuming and that length of hospital stay is usually "a pretty good indicator of seriousness of injury."

"When you only have a total of less than a million dollars, wherever you make the break between eligibility and ineligibility is going to promote some divisiveness," Feinberg said.

The relief fund has so far paid out 21 claims totaling a little more than $500,000, said Indiana State Fair Commission spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland. Another 16 claims are being processed, leaving a bit less than $500,000 in the fund with about two weeks to go before the Nov. 14 deadline for filing claims.

The idea, said McFarland, was to help those who had the most "catastrophic impact."

Retiree Karen Pavy told WTHR-TV that only to wait 48 hours after filing her claim to receive $25,000 from the relief fund. The 64-year-old spent 21 days in the hospital recovering from a fractured right leg and a crushed clavicle.

She has insurance, but her attorney advised her to file a claim, and she said she hopes anyone who was seriously injured in the stage collapse gets help.

Victims also can make a legal filing with the state's $5 million tort claim fund, but Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller has said priority will be given to the families of those who died and those who were seriously injured.

Experts say any policy for handing out money to victims is bound to raise moral questions.

"They could have picked something else, but it might not have been as neat and clean, cut and dried," said Robert Katz, a professor of law at IU School of Law-Indianapolis.