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Fair disaster suit could test civil-union benefits

A lawsuit filed by an Illinois woman whose partner was killed in a stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair could test the boundaries of legal benefits of same-sex unions.
Image: Alisha Brennon and her partner Christina Santiago
Alisha Brennon, left, survived, but her partner, Christina Santiago, died in the Aug. 13 stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair.Kenneth J. Allen & Associates
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed by an Illinois woman whose partner was killed in a stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair could test the boundaries of legal benefits of same-sex unions recognized in one state but not in another.

Alisha Brennon, 24, was injured and her partner, Christina Santiago, 29, was among seven people killed when an outdoor stage at the fairgrounds in Indianapolis toppled onto spectators Aug. 13 as high winds whipped the grandstand area. The incident happened just minutes before the country duo Sugarland was scheduled to perform.

Brennon and Santiago were among the first couples in Illinois to enter a civil union when such same-sex partnerships became legal in June.

On Monday, attorney Kenneth J. Allen filed a lawsuit in Marion County Superior Court in Indiana on behalf of Brennon and of Santiago's estate against Mid-Sound Corp., which set up the stage, and other companies involved in the fair's concert events. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges negligent and/or reckless acts on the part of the defendants led to the state collapse.

The question is whether the legal benefits of Brennon and Santiago's civil union will be recognized by courts across the state line in Indiana, which has no same-sex union law on the books.

Indiana recognizes marriage only between a man and a woman. The state's wrongful-death statute allows next of kin to collect damages, but those are technically people related by DNA, adoption or marriage, Jennifer A. Drobac, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, told The Associated Press.

"It's egregious that in Illinois, and other states, your union is recognized and you are treated with some measure of equality. And you travel across the border and become a nonperson," Allen said Monday, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"This was not some casual acquaintanceship. This was a marriage, and they need to be treated — and all married couples need to be treated —the same," Allen said at a press conference.

But legal experts said the lawsuit faces an uphill battle.

"If the stage had collapsed a few miles on the other side of border she would have been able to sue. But because it happened on this side of the border, the law (in Indiana) is not likely to recognize that," Anthony Niedwiecki, a law professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago, told "It’ll be an uphill fight for them."

He noted that civil unions are state-based designations. A lot of states don't have the concept of "civil unions" in their books, whereas every state has a definition of marriage. That means Allen would have to argue that the couple's civil union is similar to a marriage.

Indiana "is a fairly conservative state, and I do not believe these people are going to be successful," said Corri Fetman of Corri Fetman & Associates, a Chicago law firm that offers legal services on civil unions in Illinois. "I think it’s going to be a long stretch. That’s the sad part of civil unions, is that they’re not recognized in other states."

Mid-America Sound declined to comment on the case.

Other defendants include Lucas Entertainment Group, Live Nation Worldwide and ESG Security.

Allen also has filed a lawsuit on behalf of another lesbian couple seeking damages as a result of the stage collapse. In that case, the woman who died has a daughter who could recover any money awarded by a jury, according to the Tribune.

Allen has also filed a complaint in federal court in Indianapolis challenging an Indiana law that caps the state's liability for damages at $5 million for a single event. The complaint, filed on behalf of six plaintiffs in the state fair collapse, contends the cap violates the U.S. and state constitutions and should be thrown out.

"If the people who caused the harm are held to account for it, then I guarantee you they will take the safety measures next time to prevent it," said Allen of Valparaiso.

"On the other hand, if they're protected from being held to account, as they are with this kind of cap on damages, then they're not going to take those safety measures and the same kind of thing will happen again and again," he said.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller issued a statement saying his office will defend the liability cap. It has brought in victim compensation expert Kenneth Feinberg to help distribute the $5 million to victims "fairly and equitably."

"We will not wait for litigation in order to move forward in providing compensation to victims," Zoeller said.

Zoeller's office has received notice of more than 20 lawsuits filed on behalf of the seven victims killed and more than 40 other people who were injured. Zoeller has asked them and their families to file a tort claim form by Nov. 1 to seek a portion of the $5 million.

Separately from the $5 million state liability cap, the State Fair Commission has approved payouts from a relief fund of $35,000 to the families of the seven people killed, $25,000 to injured concertgoers if they were hospitalized at least 10 days; $7,500 if they were hospitalized four to nine days; and $3,000 to those hospitalized for one to three days.