Indiana Stage Collapse: Beth Urschel, Injured Lesbian Widow, Sues & Challenges Marriage Law
Since the first two of what could be many lawsuits were filed last week over the deadly Indiana State Fair stage collapse on Aug. 13, new questions have emerged concerning how one of the plaintiff's cases might impact the Hoosier State's stance on same-sex marriage and relationship recognition.
Beth Urschel, 49, is seeking at least $60 million in a wrongful death claim from Mid-America Sound Corporation, which owned the collapsed stage structure, among a bevy of other companies that helped put on the concert. Urschel is filing the suit on behalf of the estate of her partner of a decade, Tammy VanDam, 42, who died in the incident, the Indianapolis Star reported. The two lived in Wanatah, Ind., with VanDam's 17-year-old daughter. She was one of seven people killed in the collapse.
"We had so many plans and things we wanted to do," Urschel said of her partner in a press conference last week.
But one obstacle for Urschel, who sustained significant nerve damage and lost part of her foot in the incident, and her Valparaiso, Ind.-based personal injury attorney Kenneth Allen in the case is that the state of Indiana does not legally recognize same-sex unions. Since 2004, the state has had a statute in place prohibiting same-sex marriage or anything similar from being recognized.
Nearly a decade ago, the couple registered as reciprocal beneficiaries in Hawaii. The legal status grants a limited number of rights including the right to sue for wrongful death, but such a status is not recognized outside of that state.
Allen freely admits this presents a bit of a quandary for his case, but he said he has "a couple of different angles" he intends to take in pursuing his client's claim.
"No doubt it's a challenge, but we're up to it," Allen told the Huffington Post. "The reality is we can't just stand idly by and accept this kind of inequity. People should be treated fairly and equitably. This is fundamentally wrong and unfair and I think it's important for us to try and rectify it."
While unfair, such difficult situations are not uncommon for same-sex couples who encounter tragedy both while traveling out of the state where they live, or by simply living in a state where any out-of-state marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships they might have are unrecognized.
Betty Tsamis, a Chicago attorney who has a long history of working closely with the LGBT community, described this fact as "the difficult and unfortunate reality for same-sex couples."
"The legal status of our relationships is a free-for-all whenever we leave the boundaries of the states that honor our relationships," Tsamis told the Huffington Post. "Just like states were allowed to deny recognition, at whim, to interracial marriages the current legal status quo has legalized this same form of discrimination on same-sex couples."
Anthony Martinez, executive director of The Civil Rights Agenda, a Chicago-based LGBT advocacy organization, said stories like Urschel's provide an example of why legislation like the Respect for Marriage Act, which would dismantle the federal Defense of Marriage Act, remains an important goal for organizations like his. Barring legislative progress, he sees the courtroom as the place where he expects to see "a lot of the final steps in the movement toward relationship recognition happen."
"I think this woman has a tough road ahead of her in terms of the legislative climate in Indiana," Martinez told the Huffington Post. "But this could be a very important case for same-sex couples in Indiana."
As for the bigger, statewide picture, Allen is hopeful the case could have an impact beyond Urschel's family, possibly advancing LGBT advocates' cause forward for same-sex couples throughout the state -- and possibly even throughout the nation.
But Don Sherfick, vice president of Indiana Equality Action, admits that such progress, too, faces an uphill battle. Earlier this year, the Indiana General Assembly approved a constitutional ban reifying the existing statute that already prohibits same-sex marriage or civil unions from taking place. The legislature now must pass the measure a second time before it can go on a ballot -- which could happen as soon as in the fall of 2014.
Meanwhile, Sherfick said, same-sex couples and their families in Indiana and other states lacking legal recognition of their relationships continue to be "treated inherently differently and unfairly."