Trial to determine fault in Missouri group home fire

NEOSHO (AP) — Lawyers have finished presenting their cases in the civil bench trial for the owners of a southwest Missouri group home where 11 people died in a 2006 fire.

Robert DuPont, owner of the Anderson Guest House, and experts called for several survivors testified this week before Newton County Circuit Judge Tim Perigo.

The judge is expected to rule Tuesday on whether DuPont, his wife, LaVerne DuPont, and the now defunct Joplin River of Life Ministries are liable for the fire at the home for the mentally disabled. The two sides agreed to a bench trial and to a stipulation that the DuPonts and River of Life would pay $6.4 million in damages if the court finds them liable, according to The Joplin Globe.

Fire investigators ruled out arson and blamed faulty wiring as the likely cause. No criminal charges were brought in connection with the blaze. The DuPonts, however, were convicted in September of federal health care fraud.

Robert DuPont testified Thursday that he did what he was required to do under state statutes to keep residents at the Anderson Guest House safe, and that he was unaware of deficiencies in fire safety cited by state inspectors.

“All I knew is people who came to license us knew the regulations, and we were in compliance,” he said.

Shelly Dreyer, an attorney for survivors of the fire and families of victims, said DuPont and his wife had a duty to make sure the property was safe.

“Because of greed, 11 people lost their lives and 12 people were injured. A judgment (against the defendants) would send a message that this is not OK,” she said.

During Robert DuPont’s testimony, Dreyer produced several state inspection documents from other group homes owned and operated by DuPont and River of Life specifying that they were cited for deficiencies by state inspectors. The violations included problems with fire alarm systems, failure to check and maintain pressure on fire extinguishers, and failure to conduct fire drills and have an emergency plan for residents in the event of a disaster.

The DuPonts’ attorney, Bob Briggs, argued in closing that the DuPonts had met a reasonable standard for safety by addressing deficiencies cited in the state reports in a timely manner. He noted that the Anderson Guest House received a two-year renewal on its license in November 2006, just weeks before the fire.

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