Circus Acrobats Reach $52.5 Million Settlement in Fall

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When eight acrobats suspended high above the ground at a performance in Rhode Island suddenly came crashing down in May 2014, gasps and screams ripped through the crowd of spectators. In a YouTube video of the episode, one person can be heard asking, “Were they supposed to fall like that?”

They were not.

On Monday, a lawyer for the injured acrobats said his clients had reached a $52.5 million settlement with the owner and operator of the arena where the performance took place.

“That was an amount that everyone on our side thought was the right amount, it was a fair amount and it was the just amount, in our opinion,” the lawyer, Zachary M. Mandell, said in an interview.

The eight performers, who were more than 20 feet up in the air, fell atop a dancer who was on the ground below. All nine were taken to a hospital, according to a statement from Feld Entertainment, which owned the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Mr. Mandell said some of the injuries had been “life-altering.” He declined to elaborate on the injuries but said the money from the settlement would help pay for his clients’ medical and home-care needs.

In 2016, the eight performers who fell filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court against the owner of the arena, the Rhode Island Convention Center, and the company that manages it, SMG.

On Monday, Sean Brousseau, a lawyer who represents both entities, declined to comment on the settlement.

On May 4, 2014, Ringling Brothers was performing a string of shows inside the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. About 4,000 people were attending the circus’s 11 a.m. show, with thousands more expected to attend the circus’s two other shows later that day.

At one point in the show, the lights darkened as the acrobats collected themselves behind a giant curtain to prepare for the “hanging hair act.” Nine performers were hidden behind the curtain, which was illuminated by colored lights: deep blue, then magenta.

When the curtain dropped away, it revealed the eight aerialists, who appeared to be suspended by their hair around a large circular cone hanging from rigging. The acrobats were high in the air, but only for a moment.

The show’s announcer had just uttered the phrase “Suspended only by the strength of —” when the apparatus holding the acrobats fell, according to a video of the episode.

“There are safety standards and safety features that were supposed to be in place for every event, no matter whether it’s the circus, or whether you’re dealing with, you know, college basketball,” Mr. Mandell said. “Those were not used, they were not utilized for this performance, and so that is where our claims against the arena derived from.”

The United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an investigation and announced in November 2014 that it had issued a $7,000 fine — “the maximum fine allowed by law” — to Feld Entertainment. In a news release, OSHA said “the carabiner used to support the performers failed from being improperly loaded.”

In a detailed report on the episode, OSHA said that there “was no redundancy in the system” in place for the “hanging hair act,” so that when the device holding the performers failed, the “entire frame with the performers attached fell to the ground.”

“There is no document available to indicate that the rigging supporting several performers was ever reviewed and checked by a professional engineer for its structural adequacy and performance,” the report said, calling that “a serious flaw that led to the incident.”

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