Elected officials pursuing immunity from lawsuit

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Several Blair County elected officials have asked permission from a Centre County senior judge to appeal his ruling rejecting their immunity from a lawsuit brought by an attorney who was attacked last year by a death-row inmate.

The appeal would go to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, and if the county wins, it would likely bring a quick end to the lawsuit, a point argued by the county’s attorney, Louis Long of Pittsburgh.

But Robert P. Petyak, the attorney for Ebensburg-based attorney Timothy Burns, the victim of the assault by Andre Staton, said the best way to dispose of the lawsuit is to have a trial in Blair County and then file an appeal, bringing all the issues before the state court at one time.

Senior Judge David Grine heard arguments from Petyak and Long on Friday afternoon but did not make a ruling.

The county must request the judge’s permission to allow a pretrial appeal.

If Grine refuses, the county can still request the issue go to a higher court for ruling on the immunity issue if the county can show its resolution will be a key to determining the outcome of the case.

Long said the immunity question for county officials is important because to delay a resolution means a great deal of time and expense for both sides and for the court.

He said medical experts will have to be hired by both sides.

Burns will have to go through physical and mental health examinations as part of the preparation for the trial.

Burns’ side has already requested 22 documents and served the county with requests to answer 81 questions, Long stated. Yet all that work, time and expense will not be necessary if immunity applies.

Petyak disagreed, stating that that case likely won’t be shortened because appeals will result no matter how Grine rules.

Burns filed a lawsuit against Blair County contending that courtroom security was lax last May when, at the end of an emotional hearing for Staton, sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of his estranged girlfriend, the handcuffed inmate hit Burns in the head and face.

The attorney, a single practitioner, suffered a severe concussion from which he is still recovering.

The lawsuit against the county named seven members of the prison board as defendants, as well as sheriff’s deputies.

Grine rejected the county’s initial attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed, although he granted immunity to Judge Daniel J. Milliron and District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio.

But other elected officials, Commissioners Terry Tomassetti, Diane Meling, Ted Beam, Controller Richard J. Peo and Sheriff Mitchell Cooper remain in the lawsuit.

Petyak said the county really hasn’t spent much time on the lawsuit to this point. It has not answered the civil allegations, has not provided information requested by the defense or answered the questions posed by the defense.

“My client is experiencing a tough time,” said Petyak. “He needs to bring this case to a conclusion. He needs to get this case done.”

Long said the two sides so far have “agreed to disagree.”

Staton was upset during the hearing because Judge Elizabeth Doyle rejected his attempts to have her recused from the case and refused to dismiss Burns as his attorney.