Ex-owners held liable in Mo. fire that killed 11

NEOSHO, Mo. (AP) — The former owners of a southwest Missouri group home for the mentally disabled were found liable Tuesday for a 2006 fire that killed 11 people, as a judge concluded the blaze was foreseeable and preventable.

Investigators found that the fire at the Anderson Guest House resulted from faulty wiring, and no criminal charges over the blaze itself were filed against the owners, Robert and Laverne DuPont and their Joplin River of Life Ministries.

But Tuesday’s ruling in the civil lawsuit clears the way for payment of $6.4 million in damages to victims and their families, The Joplin Globe reported.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the DuPonts had stipulated to the damages before the trial began last week before Newton County Circuit Judge Tim Perigo on a change of venue from McDonald County.

“We’re sure we will appeal it,” Robert DuPont told the newspaper after the ruling, which he said he had not seen. “There is no basis for this at all.”

The DuPonts are also seeking new trials in federal court, where they were convicted in September of one count each of fraud and conspiracy to commit health care fraud in the operation of the Anderson Guest House.

One employee and 10 residents of the home in the town of Anderson died in the November 2006 fire.

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

She 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. 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.

But Robert DuPont testified he did what he was required to do to keep residents safe and that he was unaware of deficiencies in fire safety cited by state inspectors.

Perigo agreed with the plaintiffs, finding that the DuPonts breached a duty to provide a safe environment at the home for the mentally ill.

Dreyer confirmed Tuesday there was no liability insurance for the Anderson Guest House. She said the damages would have to be sought from the DuPonts’ personal assets.

Robert DuPont would not comment on the couples’ assets, telling the Globe, “I don’t think that is anybody’s business.”

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Information from: The Joplin Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com

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