Sovereign Immunity and Tort Claims Against Indiana State Government – The Indiana Tort Claims Act
If you reside in Indiana, chances are you’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the Indiana Tort Claims Fund. The debate revolves around the Indiana State Fair stage collapse, the number of victims killed or injured in the accident and the monies available to the victims and families of the deceased through the state fund.
Why does Indiana have a Tort Claims Fund? The answer to this question stems from our country’s early history and the basis of our legal system. When America was founded, our system of justice was based upon the English Common Law system of our mother country and the principle of Sovereign Immunity. It was an accepted standard of English Common Law that the sovereign “King could do no wrong”. Under this assumption the subjects of the King were unable to obtain legal justice from that which the king—the sovereign governing entity—ruled, without his royal permission.
At the dawning of the twenty-first century, we take it for granted that Americans have the right to hold corporate or governmental entities responsible for personal injury actions that harm or contribute to the harm of others. But it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the Federal government passed the Federal Tort Claims Act (28 U.S.C. §2674) waiving the federal government’s Sovereign Immunity for certain actions. This occurred as citizens began to demand accountability from their government.
On Halloween night, October 31st, 1963, a massive explosion caused by concession propane tanks at the Indiana State Fair Coliseum during a widely attended ice show, killed 74 persons and injured more than 300. An impartial panel commissioned by Judge Dillon estimated that the monies necessary to fairly reimburse injured victims and families of deceased would total $7,502,303. However, a fund of $1,122,480.79 represented the full amount of insurance coverage held by Discount Gas Corporation. After distribution of the insurance fund, more than 350 persons sued the State of Indiana charging that the State and State Fair Board had an implied contract to provide safe seating for ice show spectators. A lower court ruled that the state had no sovereign immunity and the question was then bumped up to the Indiana Supreme Court for a ruling. However, the Supreme Court did not rule on the question of state sovereign immunity when the existing case settled out of court.
It wasn’t until 1969 that the State Supreme Court was asked once again to rule on the issue of Sovereign Immunity of the State in Perkins v. State and again in 1972 under Campbell v. State. Judge Arterburn of the Supreme Court settled the dispute, writing that the State, acting in a proprietary activity, “…could not avail itself of the immunity privilege.”
In 1974 the Indiana State General Assembly enacted the Indiana Tort Claims Act. The law currently in place, Indiana Code, Chapter 3, Section 4
addresses the $700,000 cap per claimant, a $5,000,000 limitation on the aggregate liability for all claimants, and prohibits punitive damage awards. Although the individual awards for personal injury claimants have increased over the years, the total cap of $5,000,000 liability, per incident, to settle wrongful death and personal injury claims has remained the same since 1974.
Today attorneys and legislators are debating the decades old cap and its ability to address the scope of the tragedy. Already one attorney has filed suit claiming the cap denies individuals an equitable award and creates an economic incentive for the state to act negligently in future endeavors. There are those that believe the capped figure capriciously holds down merited awards. However, in the end it is expected that the legislature will have their say. We will watch with interest as the legislature attempts to deal with the Indiana Tort Claim Act and possible reforms.
Charlie Ward is a personal injury attorney experienced in accident, personal injury litigation and wrongful death claims. The law office of Ward & Ward receives no legal fees or expenses unless we collect damages on your behalf. Call Charlie today at 317-639-9501 to discuss your acc ident and receive a free analysis of your claim.