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Victims' cases still unsettled two years after gym rampage

The two-year anniversary of the LA Fitness shootings passed last week with a flurry of legal activity, but victims of gunman George Sodini's rampage have not received money for their legal efforts.

Allegheny County court records show 21 cases pending involving victims suing Sodini's estate, LA Fitness or both. Lawyers filed eight last week. Plaintiffs typically have two years from the date of an incident to file legal action.

"With this many plaintiffs, it's going to take a while," said Bruce Antkowiak, director of the criminology and law program at St. Vincent College. "It's usually two to three years before these things come to a head."

Sodini, 48, of Scott shot a dozen women when he opened fire on Aug. 4, 2009, inside the Collier gym before killing himself. Three of the victims died: Heidi Overmier, 46, of Carnegie; Jody Billingsley, 37, of Mt. Lebanon; and Elizabeth Gannon, 49, of Green Tree.

Court records show that Sodini's estate -- including his house, car and 401(k) -- was liquidated into about $210,000. How much money remains depends on a judge's decision regarding Sodini's $100,000 personal liability coverage with State Farm insurance.

"We're just now in the process of being able to decide how best to allocate the small amount of funds available. In this particular case, it took a while for the estate process to go forward," said attorney Paul Robinson, who represents shooting victim Heather Sherba.

State Farm filed paperwork last year claiming the policy did not apply because Sodini's actions were intentional and the policy covers accidents. Common Pleas Judge Paul F. Lutty heard arguments in June but did not issue a ruling. Attorneys said State Farm is in settlement discussions with the victims' attorneys. A spokesman for the company said he was unaware of settlement talks.

If State Farm pays on the policy, Sodini's estate would rise to more than $300,000, but with the number of victims, lawyers say that's not a lot of money to go around.

"There were so many shot and killed in this horrific melee, it's woefully inadequate," Robinson said. "It's nice that it doesn't involve a lot of litigation (for the estate money). Everyone knows what happened. There's no defense for claims against Mr. Sodini. Sodini was a madman."

Several lawsuits name LA Fitness as a defendant. Messages left at LA Fitness corporate offices in California were not returned.

"I think LA Fitness is liable here, and obviously, other attorneys did, too," said attorney Sidney Sokolsky, who represents Mary Ellen Buzzelli. Sokolsky last week filed a notice of intention to sue LA Fitness and Sodini's estate. He said his client was grazed by a bullet in the back of her neck.

"That guy got in with a gym bag, and that's what he had the guns in. They were negligent in surveilling the place," Sokolsky said.

If the company is found liable, that would mean more compensation for victims, but it wouldn't necessarily speed up the legal process.

Lawyers finalized a settlement for victims of Richard Baumhammers in 2009 -- nine years after the Mt. Lebanon attorney killed five people in two counties during a race-related rampage. A sixth person later died from his wounds.

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