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Appeals court upholds Indiana liability cap in fair case

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Indiana’s limits on tort claim damages do not violate the state’s constitution, a state appeals panel ruled Wednesday. The decision follows a legal challenge made in the wake of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse case.

The challenge was brought by one of the victims hurt in the collapse. Attorneys for Jordyn Polet, of Cincinnati, argued that the state’s self-imposed cap does not allow all victims to be paid equally, and has resulted in the denial of the right for Polet and other plaintiffs to seek the amount of financial damages they see fit.

Polet, who was 10-years-old at the time of the collapse, sustained leg and ankle injuries during the collapse, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court documents. Her sister Jaymie and mother Jill sustained much more serious injuries, and their family friend Megan Toothman later died from injuries sustained during the August 2011 collapse.

Indiana’s Tort Claims Act sets the maximum total payout to victims from a single event at $5 million. That money was paid to 62 victims. In late 2012, state legislators also allocated an additional $6 million in supplemental relief to 59 victims, bringing the state’s total payout to state fair victims to $11 million in public funds.

Jordyn Polet elected not to settle, suing the state instead, and was not paid as part of the $11 million allocated to victims. Because the maximum amount of money approved by the Tort Claims Act has already been paid, Marion County Judge Theodore Sosin ruled that the state and other defendants are not liable to pay her claims.

Polet’s attorneys appealed, claiming the ruling allowed the entire $5 million available under the cap to be paid out to other victims, leaving her with nothing, which “violated her right to remedy by due course of law.”

Writing the unanimous decision, Judge Melissa May said the cap “did not violate the open courts clause of the Indiana constitution, nor was Polet in a class of persons treated unequally compared to other claimants seeking relief” under the Indiana Tort Claims Act.

“After the state fair tragedy, my office worked with national victim compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to fully pay to victims the maximum $5 million the law allowed, swiftly, equitably and compassionately, to address their immediate needs. Unlike a private company being sued for damages, state government under sovereign immunity cannot be sued except under the limitations and deadlines the Legislature permits, since this is taxpayers’ money and the taxpayers did not cause the loss. We respect the court’s decision affirming constitutionality of the tort claim limits and we remain committed to putting victims first,” Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement following the ruling.

The ruling effectively upholds the state’s liability limits of $700,000 per individual and $5 million per incident. Had the appeals court overturned the lower court’s ruling, other state fair victims could have been allowed to file claims for additional compensation. The case could also have set new precedent for the amounts of financial damages awarded in tort lawsuits in Indiana.