The Great Hartford Circus Fire: Creative Settlement of Mass Disasters
On July 6, 1944, The Big Top suddenly caught fire at a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performance in Hartford, Connecticut. The inferno killed 169 people, mostly women and children, and injured more than 550 others. Faced with hundreds of liability suits, the Greatest Show on Earth was headed for bankruptcy and liquidation, and tort claimants were likely to receive nothing. This dismal scenario was averted only when a small group of public-spirited Hartford attorneys fashioned a creative, successful solution to one of the nations earliest mass torts. This nearly forgotten episode offers some valuable lessons for us today, when litigation involving asbestos, the Dalkon Shield and other mass torts is yielding a dubious brand of justice for all.