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Apr 12, 2012

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thumbnail Collapsed Indiana fair stage rigging at Sugarland concert not built to code, report finds
Apr 12th 2012, 20:39

Matt Kryger / The Star via AP file

The overhead stage rigging collapses into the crowd in front of the stage at the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand at the Indiana State Fair. The collapse occurred before Sugarland took the stage.

By staff

Wind-toppled stage rigging that collapsed on fans waiting for the band Sugarland to perform at the Indiana State Fair last summer, killing seven and injuring dozens, was not strong enough to meet state building codes, according to a report issued Thursday.

A separate report released Thursday also blamed inadequate emergency preparedness and “an ambiguity of authority” for resulting confusion and uncertainty as officials discussed possibly postponing the concert just before wind gusts blew over the rigging, NBC station WTHR reported.

Indiana State Fair Commission Chairman Andre Lacy said that the fair’s executive director Cindy Hoye, who the commission said can keep her job, wanted to delay the concert but Sugarland representatives resisted, the Indianapolis Star reported. Lacy quoted a band representative as saying, "It’s only rain; we can play," the newspaper reported.

The fair commission ordered the stage structure and emergency-preparedness reports after the Aug. 13 accident and held a hearing on them Thursday, when they were released.

Scott Nacheman, of the New York-based engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti, told the commission that the stage’s metal rigging structure did not meet requirements that it withstand wind gusts of 68 mph. Gusts reached an estimated 59 mph when the rigging collapsed, he said.

Charlie Fisher of Washington, D.C.-based Witt Associates said the fair's overall state of preparedness was not adequate for an event of its size and scope. The emergency response plan and procedures were not fully developed, and the plans weren't used ahead of the collapse, he said, according to local media reports.

Witt Associates interviewed over 100 people in its investigation.

Mid America Sound, which was responsible for building the stage, was a major exception.

Although the tour manager for Sugarland spoke to Witt Associates, their stage manager did not. "We had access to a limited number of the Local 30 personnel," Fisher said.

An unexpectedly strong storm rolled in during the fair, blowing down the stage rigging just before country duo Sugarland was to perform at the Hoosier Lottery Grandstand. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Sugarland and companies involved with building the stage. Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration in February issued $80,000 in fines, citing lack of emergency preparation and a failure to adequately build and inspect the stage rigging.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said Thursday he will share with other states the findings of reports analyzing the causes and response to the stage collapse. Indiana will host a national meeting on safety standards for outdoor temporary structures later this month in Indianapolis.

The Fair Commission, following recommendations in the new reports, said it will hire a chief operations officer to oversee public safety.

Also Thursday, Sugarland issued a statement denying that they're trying to avoid questions about the collapse, WTHR reported.

Performers Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush issued the statement shortly before Nettles was scheduled to give a deposition in Charleston, W. Va., in response to lawsuits arising from the accident.  Sugarland spokesman Allan Meyer said Bush is scheduled to give his deposition Friday. The Sugarland statement:

"In all the back-and-forth between the lawyers, the suggestion's been made that we've somehow been trying to avoid having to answer questions about last summer's terrible tragedy. This is simply not true. There is no one who wants to get to the bottom of what happened more than we do, which is why we're ready, willing, and able to give these depositions today and tomorrow. The judge has put limits on what can be discussed, but within those limits, we intend to be as honest and open as we can. We want all the facts to come out, not only for the sake of all the victims and their loved ones, but also so we can make sure that nothing like this ever happens again."

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thumbnail 2 Coast Guard members shot to death in Alaska
Apr 12th 2012, 20:29

U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard base at Kodiak, Alaska, is seen in this file photo.

By Miguel Llanos,

Two U.S. Coast Guard members at a communications station in Kodiak, Alaska, were found shot to death on Thursday, officials said, leading to a lockdown of the base and nearby schools.

It was not clear if it was a murder-suicide or double homicide.

"It is possible that the suspect remains at large," Capt. Jesse Moore, the base commander, said in a statement.

"Since we don't have all the details, we strongly advise that all Kodiak residents to remain vigilant and to report any suspicious activity to local law enforcement officials," he added.

The base and nearby schools were on lockdown "until we can ensure no threat exists," the Coast Guard stated.

The communication station, which monitors May Day maritime traffic, is about two miles from the main base, Coast Guard spokesman Grant DeVuyst told He wasn't sure if ID is required to enter the station, which has about 60 people working there, but noted that ID is required to enter the base and that only military police on the base are allowed to carry firearms.

FBI, state and local police were assigned to investigate, the Coast Guard said.

The names of the two dead were being withheld until notification of their families, and their genders were not immediately released.

Kodiak is an island about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage. About 6,300 people live on the island's main town of Kodiak, where the base is located. The base has about 1,000 Coast Guard personnel and several hundred civilian employees.

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Managers don't have to ensure lunch, court rules
Apr 12th 2012, 19:57

By news reports

In a case that affects thousands of businesses and millions of workers, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that employers are under no obligation to ensure that workers take legally mandated lunch breaks.

The California high court authorized a class of workers in the state to proceed with claims that they were denied proper rest breaks by Brinker International Inc., the parent company of Chili's restaurant chain. With respect to the meal break claims, the court ruled that employers only have to provide meal periods to workers, not make sure employees actually take them.

"An employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work," Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court.

Workers first sued Brinker, which also owns Romano's Macaroni Grills, in 2004 on behalf of a proposed class of around 60,000 non-unionized, hourly employees. They claimed that managers pressured them to skip their breaks by failing to adequately staff the restaurants or by threatening to cut or change their hours.

Brinker's attorneys argued that employees should have flexibility in choosing whether to take their scheduled breaks.

A California appeals court sided with Brinker in 2008, finding that the restaurant company only had to "make available" the meal and rest breaks, but not "ensure" they were taken. The state's Supreme Court agreed that employers do not have to police meal breaks but do need to relieve workers of duties at those times.

The court also resolved uncertainty over whether employers need to enforce a "rolling five-hour" rule, which gives workers a right to an uninterrupted meal break after five consecutive hours of work. The first meal break must fall no later than five hours into an employee's shift, but employers do not have to schedule additional meal breaks every five hours, the court ruled.

The court also set out clear guidelines for the number and timing of rest breaks, upholding a lower court's decision to authorize a class action on those claims.

Tracee Lorens, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, welcomed the opinion as a win for low-wage workers across the state.

"We never argued employers had to police breaks. We just argued that they had an affirmative obligation to relieve the employees of duty so that they could take their lunch break if they wanted to," she said. She said the case would now go back to the trial court to determine whether the meal break claims can remain part of the class action.

A spokeswoman for Brinker said the company was still reviewing the ruling and could not immediately comment.

California employers and labor lawyers have waited for three years for the high court to clarify ambiguities in the state's wage laws, which require extra pay for meal and rest break violations.

"We had an epidemic of meal and rest-break cases where virtually every employer in the state was being sued," said Scott Witlin, a Los Angeles employment lawyer at Barnes & Thornburg who is not involved in the case. The lawsuits have continued to flow in, claiming millions in damages. Many have resulted seven-figure settlements due to uncertainty in the law, he said, adding that the ruling helps businesses by clarifying the law.

Joseph Liburt, an employment lawyer at Orrick in Silicon Valley, said most businesses have been taking a conservative approach, paying the extra penalty whenever an employee's timecard shows a potential meal break issue. Many employers have also tried to make sure workers actually take their breaks, he said.

The case is Brinker Restaurant Corp v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), California Supreme Court, No. S166350.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.


thumbnail Prosecutors contend George Zimmerman provoked confrontation with Trayvon Martin
Apr 12th 2012, 17:30

By M. Alex Johnson,

NBC News

George Zimmerman at his initial hearing Thursday in Sanford, Fla. At right is his attorney, Mark O'Mara.

Updated at 4:11 p.m.: George Zimmerman pursued Florida teenager Trayvon Martin as he tried to run home and provoked a confrontation before shooting Martin in the chest during a struggle, prosecutors contended in court documents made public Thursday.

The allegations appear in a probable cause affidavit prepared in support of a second-degree murder charge against Zimmerman, who made his first court appearance earlier in the day in Sanford, Fla. A judge found probable cause to proceed with the case based on the affidavit.

Zimmerman's arraignment was set for May 29, when he plans to plead not guilty to the charge, which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, his attorney said after the hearing.

Trayvon Martin's mom retracts 'accident' characterization

In the two-page affidavit, which The Orlando Sentinel said it had obtained before it was filed with the court, prosecutors said Zimmerman "confronted Martin and a struggle ensued." Zimmerman has claimed he shot in self-defense Feb. 26 in Sanford after Martin knocked him to the ground and began beating him in the face. 

Zimmerman called police for advice because he thought Martin was suspicious, the affidavit says. He was told to wait for officers to arrive, and when the police dispatcher repeated his instructions for Zimmerman to stop, Zimmerman disregarded him, it says.

During the police call, the affidavit says, Zimmerman "made reference to people he felt had committed and gotten away with break-ins in his neighborhood." While talking about Martin, it alleges, he referred to "these f---ing punks" and "these a--holes" who "always get away."

During this time, the affidavit says, "Martin was on the phone with a friend and described to her what was happening. The witness advised that Martin was scared because he was being followed through the complex by an unknown male and didn't know why."

When Martin tried to run home, "Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and followed Martin," it says. 

"Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued," it says. 

A person's cries for help could be heard in recorded 911 calls, the affidavit says, and Martin's mother "identified the voice crying for help as Trayvon Martin's voice."

Bond hearing later
Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, could have requested Zimmerman's release on bail at Thursday's hearing, but he told reporters he chose to wait until emotions had settled down, "probably within the next couple of weeks." He did ask that all other records in the case be sealed, and the judge agreed.

O'Mara described Zimmerman as "tired, given the intensity" of the attention his case has drawn.

"He's glad the process is in place," O'Mara said. "... Let's let the system work."

Assistant State Attorney Bernardo de la Rionda told reporters he couldn't talk about the case until the May 29 arraignment.

"We look forward to presenting the evidence at that time," he said. "... We will make all arguments in the courtroom, and that's where it should be."

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