Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Indiana State Fair Collapse Lawsuit Filed Against Sugarland

Date: November 22, 2011:

Today, Mario Massillamany, of the Indiana law firm Starr Austen & Miller, LLP, announced the filing of a complaint on behalf of 47 victims of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse, which occurred on August 13, 2011.

On August 13, 2011, a large crowd of Sugarland fans gathered at the Indiana State Fair Grounds expecting a great country music concert, and instead tragedy struck. During a severe thunderstorm with very strong winds the overhead stage rigging at the outdoor concert collapsed, killing 7 people and injuring over 40 others. Among those victims were Starr Austen & Miller clients Lisa Hite, and her granddaughter Kyla-Reed Brummet, who were both in the Sugar Pit at the concert. "The injuries I sustained have left me unable to provide for my family," Hite stated. "The financial and emotional strain this has caused has left a lasting impact on my family."

The lawsuit has named Sugarland Music, Inc. and other private entities responsible for the organizing, staging and presentation of the Sugarland concert as defendants. The allegations against the defendants include that they breached their duty of reasonable care to the victims of this collapse. Specifically, the complaint alleges that Sugarland and the other private entities owed a duty to provide a safe concert environment and use reasonable care in the operation, direction, management, set-up, control, and supervision of the concert.

According to the contract reached between Creative Artists Agency (Sugarland's agent) and the Indiana State Fair Committee, Sugarland was guaranteed:
  • $300,500 to perform
  • $30,000 for sound and lights
  • $4,500 for catering
  • 85% gross box office receipts over $470,000
The contract specifies that Sugarland has the final say on whether to cancel a concert due to weather.  "This unimaginable tragedy will forever live in the hearts and minds of the people of Indiana," said plaintiffs' counsel Mario Massillamany. "Unfortunately, this tragedy could have been prevented if the responsible parties had been concerned about the concertgoers that night."

A copy of the complaint can be seen here.  If you have information regarding the litigation, please call 574-722-6676. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Will The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act Make FINRA Arbitration Obsolete?

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act shows a congressional dislike for mandatory arbitration provisions, to say the least. This Act, which was signed into law on July 21, 2010, by President Barack Obama, contains many provisions which could lead, after study, to the prohibition or limitation on these boilerplate clauses in consumer contracts. This includes arbitration provisions in client agreements with broker dealers that cause many securities fraud causes of action to be arbitrated at FINRA at this time.

Widespread Prevalence of These Arbitration Clauses

Statistically, just about everyone in the United States has knowingly, or unknowingly, agreed to a boilerplate mandatory arbitration clause in the contracts or agreements we enter into day in and day out. Some of the most common are those contained in credit card agreements, for example, in which you’ve agreed to take any disputes to arbitration instead of going to court.

The Problem with Mandatory Arbitration Provisions

Arbitration is an alternative way to resolve legal disputes outside the judicial system. Using this method a neutral third party is supposed to hear both sides of the story and then make a binding decision. When arbitration was first introduced in this country it held the promise of improving the dispute process by speeding it up, making it cheaper, and keeping parties from jumping through some of the legal hoops involved in going to court. Arbitration, when conceived, however, imagined two parties of approximately equal bargaining power voluntarily choosing to use the process. That is no longer the case.

Over the years big business has begun inserting these mandatory arbitration provisions in just about every contract they can think of. They’ve done this because they’ve figured out that these arbitration provisions tend to give them the upper hand over consumers in dispute resolution. For instance, there is no jury, no public trial, little to no review by the courts, and instead of going to your local courthouse the arbitration can be located hundreds of miles away from where you live. What makes this worse is that consumers cannot negotiate these provisions, but it is take it or leave it. That assumes, of course, that we even know the fine print clause is in the document, or understand its legal implications to begin with.

Mandatory Arbitration in the Context of Securities Fraud

Arbitration provisions have also creeped into many customer account agreements between customers and their brokers, often without the customer being aware of the provisions existence, and/or unaware of its legal implications. These agreements are typically signed when a customer first begins a relationship with a broker, and agrees that any future disputes between the party, meaning things that have not even happened yet, will be subject to arbitration by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”).

The mandatory arbitration provisions in these agreements have been just as controversial as those in credit card and other consumer agreements. Some of the criticisms leveled against FINRA arbitration include that it is biased in favor of the broker dealer, because one of the three arbitrators on the panel is from the securities industry. Further, the broker dealers themselves are the people who make up the membership of FINRA, so is FINRA really going to bite the hand that feeds it? There are those, of course, from the securities industry themselves who defend the FINRA arbitration process [link to SAM article: what is FINRA arbitration?] saying it is speedy, less expensive and fair. However, as hard as many brokers and securities firms fight to enforce these arbitration provisions, and avoid court, critics may just have a point about who is most favored between the brokers and the customers.

The Dodd-Frank Act’s Potential Blow to FINRA Arbitration

It seems Congress may finally be waking up to some of these criticisms, and showing a willingness to investigate the issue further. The language related to FINRA arbitrations in the Dodd-Frank Act is found in Section 921, which confers authority on the SEC to make rules that limit or prohibit these provisions between customers and broker dealers or investment advisors.

Specifically, the section states:

The Commission, by rule, may prohibit, or impose conditions or limitations on the use of, agreements that require customers or clients of any broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer to arbitrate any future dispute between them arising under the Federal securities laws, the rules and regulations thereunder, or the rules of a self-regulatory organization if it finds that such prohibition, imposition of conditions, or limitations are in the public interest and for the protection of investors.

Currently Arbitration Clauses Are Legal and Common In Securities Fraud Cases

Of course, the Act’s language does not currently prohibit such arbitration provisions in customer agreements, and therefore the industry still includes them as standard at this time. Unless and until the SEC creates a contrary rule these mandatory arbitration provisions continue to be valid and enforceable, as a general rule.