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Big tent collapses highlight need for evacuation plans

Big tent collapses highlight need for evacuation plans

Large tents that collapsed at a circus in New Hampshire and a festival in Illinois during severe storms — killing three people and injuring dozens — have resulted in litigation and renewed warnings about devising and following emergency evacuation plans at such summer events.

An aggravating factor in both cases is that severe weather warnings had already been issued but neither tent was evacuated, according to litigation and reports.

On Aug. 2, a 35-year-old man was killed when a steel tentpole collapsed under the pressure of high winds and struck him during Prairie Fest, an annual event hosted by the city of Wood Dale, Illinois.

The next day, high winds knocked down a large tent in Lancaster, New Hampshire, at a circus held by Walker Brothers International Circus, killing a 41-year-old man and his 8-year-old daughter.

Last week, Chicago attorney Louis Cairo filed suit in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of the deceased man's wife alleging negligence by CP OPCO L.L.C., which does business as Classic Party Rentals, and Chicago Running & Special Events Management Inc., which does business under several names including Chicago Events, according to the suit.

“The safety plan should include some emergency evacuation plan for the event, especially for adverse weather. You can't plan for everything, and some things come up, but the event promoters should have a plan in place,” said Jan Mowery, Sedona, Arizona-based senior broker at Specialty Pacific Business Insurance Services Inc.

The tent collapse was “predictable and preventable,” Mr. Cairo told reporters. “We will consider whether or not to add the City of Wood Dale as an additional party defendant,” he said in an email.

In New Hampshire, attorneys threatened similar litigation, also reportedly alleging that the circus organizer did not have the proper permits.

None of the companies could be immediately reached for comment.

According to a spokesman for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, insurers probably underwrite each event based on the location, safety procedures employed, type of crowd expected, parking, whether alcohol is served and proximity to a police station, among other factors.

Tent rental companies such as Chicago-based AAA Rental System say their insurance is provided by the Moline, Illinois-based American Rental Association, which provides risk management professionals who help clients and provide training materials, such as an emergency tent evacuation procedure in emergencies that include severe weather, according to a spokesman.

Ms. Mowery said most small events have property/casualty insurance that has a $1 million limit per occurrence and $1 million in excess aggregate coverage per event.

“For a large-scale event, they will have a $5 million to $10 million excess policy that covers if something really bad happens. If they don't have it, they usually go bankrupt,” she said.

Ms. Mowery is the insurance broker for the Wasteland Weekend event, a Mad Max re-enactment in the California desert with about 5,000 attendees, and the Las Vegas Halloween parade that attracts 10,000 to 20,000 people a year. Syndicates at Lloyd's of London have insured the events. Both have excess coverage, she said.

“Most cities will require excess coverage for more than 1,000 people in a weather-related area,” Ms. Mowery said. “Both (tent) events should have had excess policies.”

“You can have the best plan in the world, but if you don't have someone there to implement the plan, it doesn't do anyone any good,” she said.