Missouri department dropped from lawsuit over deadly 2006 fire at group home

Friday, March 20, 2009 | 5:43 p.m. CDT

NEOSHO — A circuit judge has ruled that a state agency should be removed from lawsuits over a 2006 fire that killed several people in a southwest Missouri group home for the mentally disabled.

Newton County Circuit Judge Timothy Perigo this week issued a ruling that sustained attorney Ron Mitchell's motion for the removal of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services from the wrongful death lawsuits.

The department was added in September 2007 to the lawsuits filed on behalf of victims and family members against the Anderson Guest House, its owners and operators. The department was accused of failing to provide for the safety of 11 residents killed in the November 2006 fire at the guest house.

Those lawsuits originally named only the owners and operators of the home: Robert J. DuPont; his wife, LaVerne DuPont; Shirley Brannon, the home's administrator; and the defunct Joplin River of Life Ministries Inc., which oversaw the home in Anderson and several others in the area. The lawsuits are pending in Newton County Circuit Court on a change of venue from McDonald County.

Investigators ruled that the Nov. 27 fire was accidental, most likely caused by an electrical problem.

Ed Hershewe, attorney for the victims, was out of town Friday and did not immediately return calls seeking comment about Perigo's ruling.

But Hershewe said earlier this month that his clients can't get much out of the DuPonts, Brannon or River of Life because none had any insurance and the DuPonts are facing several federal charges related to Medicaid fraud.

"The families have no recourse so far," Hershewe said.

The lawsuits allege that the state failed to inspect, certify and license the home in a manner that provided for the safety of residents; failed to require the home to correct known maintenance problems that led to the fire; failed to require properly functioning furnace, electrical and fire-alarm systems; and failed to require a properly functioning fire-sprinkler system.

Attorneys for the department said the state has sovereign immunity that protects it from such lawsuits. Because the Anderson home was a private facility, the state said it wasn't liable for the fire.

"In a summary judgment, everybody agrees these are the facts," Mitchell said. "Then it becomes a question of law and can you proceed. As a matter of law, we're entitled to be out of this case based on those facts."

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