Lawsuit Alleges Child's 2008 Air Show Death Was Due To Organizer Negligence

Huntsville, AL — The family of a 5-year-old boy killed at the 2008 Air Show at the Huntsville International Airport is alleging in a revised lawsuit filed late Wednesday that organizers were negligent in the show’s set up and that negligence led to the child’s death.

The lawsuit contends that 20 hospitality tents set up at the show were anchored improperly and contrary to manufacturer instruction.

The child, Josiah Miller and his father, Jason, took shelter from a thunderstorm at the show on June 29, 2008 by going behind a tent, according to the lawsuit. As the tents became dislodged by the winds, the father was struck and cut on the hand and arm by a tent and then a large air conditioner connected to a tent by duct work fell on the child, causing fatal injuries.

The tents should have been secured individually with four pegs, instead of anchoring them in a group with pegs on one side and water barrels on the other, the suit argues.

Steve Whitman, the owner of tent provider All Needz Rental, also told organizers the safest way to anchor the tents was by driving stakes into the nearby asphalt, but that idea was rejected, the lawsuit said, because of concerns about the cost of repairing the asphalt.

The suit argues required inspections were not performed on the tents and air conditioning units and generators were set up much closer to the public than is allowed by Huntsville fire code. It adds that there was no proper evacuation plan for severe weather, other than sending people into the tents, even though possible thunderstorms had been forecast the day before the fatal accident.

The lawsuit notes that in the ad campaign leading up to the event, organizers said the show “will occur rain or shine.”

The final day of the air show drew large crowds and was buffeted by two thunderstorms, one of which produced winds up to 48 miles per hour.

Joseph King Jr., attorney for the Millers, said the family is still grieving the loss of their son.

“Our investigation has concluded that this was a preventable tragedy caused by negligent conduct,” King said. “We can substantiate all the negligent allegations in the complaint by either the defendants own deposition testimony or by documents actually produced by the defendants.”

The lawsuit names All Needz Rental, the Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority and Air Show 2008. Authority marketing director Barbie Peek and authority operations director Doug Kreulen were also named for their roles in organizing the show.

Attorneys for All Needz declined comment. Peek said she had no comment and said the authority would not comment on any litigation.

Officials and the tent provider have described the event as a tragedy and pointed to the unusual “microburst” of high winds that came up suddenly that Sunday afternoon.

The lawsuit argues that the 2003 air show here had a professional air show director come in to oversee the show. For 2008, Peek, a marketing manager who had not organized an air show before, was named director.

The suit says her role included securing a special event permit that required identifying and following all relevant regulations, including multiple inspections of tent setups, but that was not done.

Prisoner labor was also used to put up the tents, rather than trained installers, to save on labor costs, the lawsuit argues.

All Needz said the tents should have been able to withstand winds of 48 mph if properly anchored, and it had previously observed similar tents enduring winds up to 60 mph, according to the lawsuit.

Several tents came loose Friday because of high winds, and there was a forecast Saturday for possible severe weather on Sunday, the suit contends.

King said the case is set for an August 2011 trial date.

“It is the Miller family’s sincere hope that this case will ensure that this type of a preventable tragedy never occurs again,” he said. “The last thing they want is for another family to endure what they have had to go through due to negligent conduct.”

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