Attorney’s lawsuit put on hold

HOLLIDAYSBURG – The lawsuit filed by an attorney who was assaulted in a Blair County courtroom last May has been put on hold until the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court can determine if local officials have immunity from legal action.

Senior Judge David E. Grine of Centre County heard an argument last Friday from attorney Louis Long of Pittsburgh, representing most of the county’s elected officials, in which he asked for a stay of the lawsuit filed by Ebensburg attorney Timothy Burns.

Burns was hit in the face and head at the conclusion of a hearing last May, in which death row inmate Andre Staton requested permission to represent himself.

Burns was Staton’s court-appointed attorney, and he advised the judge, Elizabeth Doyle, against allowing Staton to serve as his own attorney in view of the complexity of death-penalty litigation.

Staton, although in a restraint belt and cuffed at the wrists was still able to strike Burns, causing a serve concussion.

Burns late last year filed a lawsuit against the Blair County Prison Board, the county and officials on the prison board, which includes seven elected officials – the commissioners, the controller, the sheriff, a judge and the district attorney.

Grine in February denied a Blair County request to dismiss the lawsuit.

Burns’ attorney, Robert Petyak of Ebensburg, opposed any slowdown of the Burns litigation, but Long argued the most reasonable thing to do at this point is determine if an exception to the grant of immunity to governmental officials is warranted.

Petyak said the wisest thing to do was try the case and then take all issues on appeal to the higher courts at one time.

But, Long said to go ahead at this point with depositions and a trial is not only expensive but may be a waste of time – if immunity applies.

Grine’s ruling, made available Monday in the office of the Prothonotary and Clerk of Courts, granted the stay, which means the lawsuit will go the to Commonwealth Court for review of the immunity controversy.

Petyak said the Commonwealth Court will have to decide if it wants to resolve the immunity question at this point.

If the court decides to take the case, it could mean a delay up to 18 months, he speculated Monday.

Burns could not be reached for comment.

There is a substantial gap between the two sides. Petyak maintains that while immunity is generally granted to public officials, he claims there is a “real estate” exception.

He contended in the lengthy lawsuit he filed on Burns’ behalf that the courtroom that day was unsafe because Staton, known for the violent death of his estranged girlfriend a decade ago, was not properly restrained and that officials didn’t act quickly enough to prevent Burns’ injury.

The county legal team argues the real estate exception does not apply in the Burns case. It only applies if there was an obvious deficiency in the physical structure of the building that caused injury.

Grine’s rulings will bring the case to a halt for the moment.

County officials do not have to answer the legal complaint filed by Petyak.

All discovery will be put on hold during the appeal, Grine stated.

A second Grine order concluded “an immediate appeal may materially advance the ultimate termination of the matter.”