Officials: Burns suit must be dismissed

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County officials being sued by an attorney who was attacked by a death row inmate in Judge Elizabeth Doyle’s courtroom last May said the lawsuit must be dismissed because, aside from a few exceptions, they have immunity.

Pittsburgh attorneys Suzanne B. Merrick and Lauren N. Woleslagle on Tuesday filed what are known as preliminary objections to the lawsuit against the Blair County commissioners, the Prison Board, the sheriff’s department, as well as three sheriff’s deputies and the district attorney. One of the exceptions to the cloak of immunity for government officials involves real estate.

According to Robert P. Petyak of Ebensburg, representing the injured lawyer, Timothy S. Burns, county-owned real estate – the courthouse – was unsafe last May when Burns, a court-appointed attorney, was representing death-row inmate Andre Staton.

According to the civil charges filed by Petyak, sheriff’s deputies did not have adequate restraints on Staton, convicted of killing his estranged girlfriend, Beverly Yohn, in 2004, and deputies did not react quickly enough to prevent Staton from swinging his shackled arms and hitting Burns squarely in the face, momentarily knocking him unconscious.

Burns is still recovering from the blow and is asking for compensation from the county.

Because the courthouse was unsafe “for the activities for which it was and is regularly used, for which it was intended to be used, or for which it was reasonably foreseen to be used,” Petyak stated in a letter to the commissioners last October, the real estate exception applies.

The county’s lawyers now have responded, stating that Petyak must show Burns was injured as a result of the defect of the “physical characteristics” of the real property [the courthouse] and not because of some activity by Staton.

Injury caused by another person is not a defect in the property, the county argued.

County attorneys contend that Pennsylvania courts have ruled that inadequate security or supervision is not sufficient to state a legal claim under the real estate exception.

All the allegations brought by Burns and his attorney relate to a third party as causing the injuries, not defects in the building itself, the county lawyers stated.

The county rejects Burns’ argument that as a court-appointed attorney handling the Staton case, he had a “special relationship” with the county officials, and they had a duty to protect him.

The county is asking dismissal of Burns’ complaint.

No judge has yet been assigned to the case, according to court records.

Most of the elected officials in the county have been named as defendants in the Burns lawsuit.

The commissioners – Terry Tomassetti, Diane Meling and Ted Beam – are in charge of county real estate, and they are also members of the Prison Board, which also includes Controller Richard Peo, Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, Judge Daniel J. Milliron and District Attorney Richard A. Consigilio.

Staton meanwhile faces a new charge of assault by a prisoner that carries with it life in prison.

On the day of the attack, May 13, Staton was in Doyle’s courtroom for a hearing in which Burns, on behalf of Staton, asked that she recuse herself from the case. She refused.

Staton also wanted to serve as his own attorney. Burns said he did not favor such a move. The death-row inmate was upset he didn’t get his way, and he began to “berate” the judge, according to Petyak in summarizing the situation in his letter to the commissioners.

Staton was so upset he asked to be executed on the spot.

It was just after that he slammed his fists into Burn’s face.

Burns was court-appointed to handle post-conviction apppeals for defendants. Because of the Staton incident, he had to resign from the position, now filled by Hollidaysburg attorney Paul Puskar.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.