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Settlement Reached in State College Fatal-Fire Case

on June 14, 2011 7:20 PM

A wrongful-death lawsuit stemming from a State College house fire was settled out of court Tuesday, lawyers in the case said.

Penn State student Christopher Raspanti, 21, died in the April 2005 fire, at 500 E. Beaver Ave. Since December 2005, his father, Bucks County resident William A. Raspanti, had pursued civil litigation against his son's landlord, Rodney Hendricks, and Continental Real Estate Management, which once managed the rental property.

Centre County President Judge David E. Grine set a court trial for December 2011.

Lawyers in the matter were to gather Tuesday in Bellefonte to hear a change-of-venue request for the trial. An attorney representing William Raspanti, Clifford D. Bidlingmaier, had wanted to have the trial relocated to another county, arguing that many Centre Countians have "persistent and widespread prejudice against" Penn State students.

But the change-of-venue hearing never happened. After they were to assemble in Grine's chambers about 4 p.m. Tuesday, attorneys appeared in an adjacent hallway and said they had reached a confidential settlement.

They told reporters that they could not divulge any details of the agreement, nor comment on whether the parties involved were satisfied.

Within weeks, they said, they will file in court a petition that delineates the settlement agreement and ask Grine to approve it.

It's likely that the agreement will remain confidential at that point, too.

The settlement appears to mark the end of legal proceedings, which put a spotlight on the fatal fire and the circumstances surrounding it.

Christopher Raspanti, an electrical-engineering major from Fairless Hills, Pa., suffered smoke inhalation and was found dead in his third-floor bedroom after the blaze, according to court filings.

Through legal counsel, William Raspanti argued that local code rules should have prevented the third floor from being used for bedrooms. But Christopher Raspanti and his roommates were never told that they should not sleep there, attorneys claimed.

William Raspanti, through court filings, also argued that Hendricks, the landlord, knowingly allowed the property to be over-occupied; that he failed to perform necessary maintenance; and that the 80-year-old house had inadequate and faulty electrical work.

Investigators traced the cause of the fire to a ceiling area above Christopher Raspanti's bedroom and said it was probably rooted in an electrical fault or over-heating, according to court filings.

But defense attorneys disputed the plaintiff's claims, arguing in part that Hendricks had no knowledge of the home's over-occupied condition. They also cited the tenants' own reported admission that they disabled smoke detectors in the house.

"While Raspanti ultimately succumbed to smoke inhalation, it is undisputed that the level of alcohol in his blood (recorded at 0.271 blood-alcohol content) and the severe deprivation of sleep in the days prior to the fire prevented him from leaving the home as did the ten other occupants," defense attorneys William Krekstein and Elizabeth Dupuis wrote in a court filing.

William Raspanti, however, maintained that "alcohol played no role in (his son's) death, given the records of the Centre County coroner and expert testimony, both of which show Christopher died of smoke inhalation," attorneys Bidlingmaier and Michael T. Sellers wrote in court.

Pretrial discovery in the case involved depositions of nearly 50 witnesses and parties, according to court documents. William Raspanti sought punitive damages.

The fatal fire also helped to drive some code-regulation changes in the Centre Region. The rules have since been revised to include tougher smoke-alarm and sprinkler standards for rentals.

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