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Venue Change Sought in State College Wrongful-Death Case; Local Prejudice Cited

on April 21, 2011 6:15 PM

Two attorneys in a State College wrongful-death case want the trial to be moved outside Centre County, arguing that many county residents have "a persistent and widespread prejudice against Penn State University students."

That prejudice "precludes a fair and impartial trial" within the county's borders, attorneys Clifford D. Bidlingmaier and Michael T. Sellers wrote in a transfer-of-venue petition filed this month. Specifically, they cited the university's top billing as a ranked party school as an element in how Penn State students are perceived.

Bidlingmaier and Sellers represent William A. Raspanti, of Bucks County, whose 21-year-old son, Christopher, died in a State College house fire in April 2005. Since December 2005, Raspanti has pursued a wrongful-death case against his son's landlord, Rodney Hendricks, and Continental Real Estate Management, which once managed the rental property.

A Centre County court trial has been scheduled for nine days starting on Dec. 7. As of earlier this week, President Judge David E. Grine had yet to decide on the change-of-venue request.

Raspanti, through his attorneys, has argued that his son's rented home, at 500 E. Beaver Ave., was not allowed to have bedrooms on the third floor. That's where Chris Raspanti was found dead in his bedroom, having suffered smoke inhalation, according to findings cited in court. He was an electrical-engineering major at Penn State.

In other arguments, William Raspanti has claimed his son -- and his son's roommates -- were never told that the third floor should not have been used for bedrooms. He has claimed, through his attorneys, that Hendricks knowingly allowed the property to be over-occupied beyond its five-tenant capacity; that Hendricks 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 Raspanti's room and said it was probably rooted in an electrical fault or over-heating, according to court filings.

Attorneys involved in the case have not spoken with for use in publication. But in court filings, defense attorneys have claimed that Hendricks had no knowledge of the home's sixth tenant. Defense filings also cited the tenants' reported admission that they disabled smoke detectors in the house.

The night before the fire, according to a defense filing, the tenants threw a party attended by 100 to 200 people. Eleven people slept there that night -- five of them on the third floor, according to the filing.

All but Raspanti escaped after a local taxi driver and two sanitation workers noticed the early-morning fire. The trio raced inside to wake and evacuate the occupants.

"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, has 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 Sellers have written in court.

With regard to the home's electrical systems, Krekstein and Dupuis noted that third-floor wiring was "determined to be within acceptable code standards" after the fire. Also after the fire, they wrote in a filing, code inspector Tim Knisely found that "the only contributing code violation was the lack of working smoke alarms."

Krekstein and Dupuis cited the inspector's report, which reads in part: "There is no evidence if (sic) a property maintenance or fire code violation, which the owner had responsibility for, that (contributed) to the fire ... ."

In sum, the defense attorneys have written, "Hendricks did not breach the duties imposed upon him by the Centre Region Property Maintenance Code or any other applicable law." In fact, they wrote, Knisely did not issue a violation to Hendricks after finding third-floor sleeping space in the house in 2001.

"Hendricks was reasonable in relying on the expertise of code officials to alert him to potential safety risks at the property," Krekstein and Dupuis wrote.

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

Earlier coverage

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Penn State, State College Noon News & Features: Thursday, April 21
April 21, 2011 11:30 AM
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