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Lawsuit seek damages, rights for Indiana stage collapse victims

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 6:56 PM EDT, Mon September 26, 2011
Seven people were killed when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair on August 13.
Seven people were killed when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair on August 13.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: An injured woman says the death of her same-sex partner "is not right"
  • NEW: A lawyer says a $5 million cap on damages is "puzzling" and "wrong"
  • NEW: He says same-sex partners deserve the same benefits as heterosexual ones
  • Seven people were killed in the Indiana State Fair collapse last month

(CNN) -- A woman whose same-sex partner was killed in last month's stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair joined a personal injury attorney in pushing a federal lawsuit against the state of Indiana on behalf of those injured and the families of those killed.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn the state's $5 million cap on damages that can be paid out on what lawyer Kenneth Allen called "a first-come, first-serve basis." It also addresses what he described as "unfairness (and) prejudice toward gay and lesbian couples" who might not be entitled to payments, if their civil unions or marriages aren't recognized in Indiana.

Allen was joined at a Merriville press conference by Alisha Brennon, who spoke publicly for the first since suffering severe head and other injuries in the collapse. Her long-time partner Christina Santiago -- an activist for gay and lesbian rights and health issues with whom she officially was joined in a civil union in Illinois in June -- was killed, as were six others.

"She fought for everything that she believed in, and I believe she's still fighting," Brennon said. "We're going to do it. We're not going to stop."

Brennon was among at least 40 people injured August 13 when the scaffolding collapsed during a severe thunderstorm that blew through the area just before country music duo Sugarland was set to perform. The structure fell onto fans gathered in front of the stage minutes after authorities had addressed the audience about the approaching storm.

Allen claims that the lawsuit aims to compel Indiana to change its policies. That includes what he called its "puzzling" and "wrong" cap on how much the state can pay out "no matter how many people are harmed, now matter how many are injured."

"They're attempting to throw a bowl of crumbs to a bunch of pigeons," he said. "Our clients aren't pigeons."

The lawyer alleged that the event's organizers "cut every corner that they possibly could," calling their actions before and during that night "reckless." He claimed that the fact there was a limit on possible damages didn't give enough incentive to take every safety precaution.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller told CNN affiliate WISH that he is not aware of a prior case where the courts have overturned caps on damages -- something that Allen acknowledged Monday, saying "this case is without precedent."

Yet the most emotional part of Monday's press conference came from Brennon, who still carried bruises and cuts to her head six weeks after the accident.

She said it was initially a "perfect night" for her, Santiago and others. Then at one point, she recalled, someone came on stage to say the storm would "move around us" while adding that an evacuation was possible.

"Five minutes later, I was knocked unconscious," Brennon said through tears. "And I never saw (Santiago) again. It's not right."

Allen said that he would fight so that Brennon would get the same benefits as a wife might get if she lost her husband in the collapse.

"We should not stand by and allow this inequality," the lawyer said, calling gay and lesbian rights "the last frontier of equal protection." "It makes no difference (if a couple is straight or gay, as long as they) love each other and are committed to each other."

In addition to Monday's lawsuit, the state faces 21 other potential lawsuits related to the collapse, according to CNN affiliate WRTV.

The Indiana State Police, the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration and an independent company hired by the state fair commission are all conducting investigations into the incident.

"Our goal is to learn everything we can why this tragedy occurred. We won't leave any question unanswered, from both a structural standpoint and the decision that was made," Indiana State Fair Commission Chairman Andre Lacy said last month. "We know that many are eager for answers today. We don't have them. And we won't speculate."

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