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Sugarland lawyer blames fans for Indiana injuries

The Associated Press, Tuesday, February 21, 2012, 12:06pm (PST)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Fans who were killed and injured when stage rigging and sound equipment collapsed onto them as they awaited a Sugarland concert at the Indiana State Fair failed to take steps to ensure their own safety and are at least in part to blame for their injuries, the country duo's attorneys said.

The statement, part of a Feb. 16 response to a civil suit filed by survivors and families of some of those killed, is a clear attempt to cast blame away from the band as investigators continue to search for answers in the collapse that killed seven people and injured 58.

Calling the powerful winds that toppled the stage on Aug. 13 an "act of God," Sugarland's attorneys said fair officials and Mid-America Sound Corp. were responsible for the stage setup, and that the fans voluntarily assumed risk by attending the show.

"Some or all of the plaintiffs' claimed injuries resulted from their own fault," according to the response. Sugarland attorney James H. Milstone would not elaborate Tuesday on whether that statement included those killed as well as the injured.

The lawsuit response sharply contrasts comments lead singer Jennifer Nettles gave The Associated Press two days after the stage collapsed.

Nettles said then that she was "moved by the grief of those families who lost loved ones. Moved by the pain of those who were injured and the fear of their families. Moved by the great heroism as I watched so many brave Indianapolis fans actually run toward the stage to try and help lift and rescue those injured. Moved by the quickness and organization of the emergency workers who set up the triage and tended to the injured."

Sugarland manager Gail Gellman issued a statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday saying Nettles and Kristian Bush were upset that anyone might think they were not concerned about their fans.

"Sadly when a tragedy occurs, people want to point fingers and try to sensationalize the disaster. The single most important thing to Sugarland are their fans. Their support and love over the past nine years has been unmatched. For anyone to think otherwise is completely devastating to them," the statement read.

Attorneys representing at least 20 law firms across Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky filed the complaint Nov. 22 in Marion Superior Court in Indianapolis alleging breach of reasonable care to the victims. The suit names as plaintiffs dozens of people injured and the families of some of those killed, and it seeks unspecified damages from Sugarland, producers, stage riggers and others associated with the show.

Jeff Stesiak, a South Bend attorney involved in the suit, said the band's response was strange given the circumstances of the fans' injuries.

"It's unusual to put the blame on victims. The concert wasn't canceled and they weren't told to leave. I can't imagine what the victims did to be at fault," Stesiak said Tuesday. "They had a duty to warn fans. An open and obvious danger is more like walking along a road and seeing a downed power line and walking over it anyway. The storm wasn't like that."

Lawyers for the band are seeking a jury trial.

In a Jan. 16 deposition on a lawsuit against the company that built the stage rigging, Indiana State Fair Commission Executive Director Cindy Hoye testified that Sugarland resisted delaying the start of the concert despite threatening weather.

Hoye said a representative for a concert promotion company working with the fair twice approached Sugarland about the fair's desire to delay the show. But Hoye said the band expressed concerns about how a delay would affect the time Nettles needed to warm up and complicate the band's travel to its next show.

Sugarland tour manager Hellen Rollens told investigators with the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration that there was no discussion of delaying the show.

Earlier this month, Indiana regulators released a report saying Hoye and other fair officials were too slow to order an evacuation.

IOSHA fined the State Fair Commission $6,300 for failing to conduct proper safety evaluations of its concert venues. It also called the commission's emergency plan inadequate.

The agency also cited Mid-America, the company that erected the stage rigging, and the union whose members worked on the structure for various workplace violations.

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Associated Press writer Caitlin King in Nashville contributed to this story.

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