Attorney’s suit against Blair stands

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A visiting judge has denied Blair County’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Ebensburg attorney Timothy Burns who suffered a concussion last May after being attacked in court by his client, death row inmate Andre Staton.

The judge, David Grine of Centre County, without explanation granted a request to drop civil charges against Blair County Judge Daniel J. Milliron and District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio, but Grine refused to cloak other defendants in the lawsuit with immunity, including Sheriff Mitchell Cooper, commissioners Terry Tomassetti, Diane L. Meling and Ted Beam Jr., and Controller Richard A. Peo.

The lawsuit also names the Blair County Prison Board as a defendant.

The decision by the judge means that the attorney representing Blair County, Suzanne B. Merrick of Pittsburgh, must file an answer within 20 days to Burns’ contentions that he was seriously injured by Staton because of a lack of security in the courtroom.

Burns’ attorney Robert P. Petyak of Ebensburg requested Grine order the county to provide information that will help advance his case, such as an outline of policies and procedures followed by the Sheriff’s Department in transporting inmates to court hearings and methods of protecting those in the courtroom from potentially violent inmates.

Grine rejected Petyak’s “motion to compel” and told him to refile a request for information, known as discovery.

While both sides won and lost some of their points, Petyak concluded that the decision by Grine not to dismiss the Burns lawsuit was a plus for his side.

“It’s an important decision in that it gives Tim Burns a chance to present his case and let a jury make the decision,” he said.

He said he will eventually have the opportunity to obtain “discovery.”

Burns was not in the courtroom on Wednesday during the legal argument.

For many years, Burns served as a court-appointed attorney, representing many defendants in their appeals to the Pennsylvania superior and supreme courts.

That job came to an end last May when, after a post conviction hearing for Staton, who is on death row for the 2004 murder of an estranged girlfriend, Staton, suddenly lashed out, using his cuffed hands to strike Burns in the face.

Burns suffered a concussion and many other injuries, according to his lawsuit, and he is just now starting to get back to his law practice, according to Petyak.

As a result of the blow, Burns, according to his lawsuit, suffered a concussion, post traumatic stress, heart problems, depression, headaches, lack of recall and many other symptoms.

Petyak argued Wednesday that there is a “real estate exception” to the immunity granted under Pennsylvania law to elected officials.

Merrick rejected Petyak’s argument, stating that a real estate exception would be permitted only if something was defective with the courtroom itself.

Staton caused the injures, not the courtroom, Merrick said.

Going back and forth, Petyak emphasized to the judge that Staton was a dangerous individual who stabbed his former girlfriend with a knife until it broke, and that he did it while he was under a protection from abuse order.

He said the case may be one of “first impression” in Pennsylvania.

Petyak stated that the job of the Sheriff and his deputies is to provide security in the courtroom, and in this case it did not occur.

He was upset also that the county has not provided him with the discovery he requested.

“They are trying to end this case by raising, improperly, the defense of immunity,” Petyak stated.

Petyak after the rulings by Grine was asked his opinion of a ruling just last week in the criminal case against Staton in which Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva dismissed several serious assault charges against Staton – allowing one charge of aggravated assault to stand – because she didn’t believe that Burns’ injuries rose to the level of serious bodily injury.

Petyak said the criminal case was separate from the civil charges and said each case demands a different standard of proof.

But, he said, Judge Kopriva didn’t have access to the hundreds of pages of medical records concerning Burns’ injuries. Those records will be part of the civil case.