Record dog attack liability settlement raises stakes for shelters

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2010:


PHILADELPHIA, INDIANAPOLIS–The known economic risk to third
parties in non-fatal dog attack liability cases soared to $1.9
million on March 5, 2010 when Rottweiler attack plaintiffs Evelyn
and Larry Shickram accepted a $1.6 million settlement offer from Boss
Pet Products.
“Schickram v. Boss Pet Products was in the middle of jury
selection in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court when the plaintiffs
settled,” wrote Legal Intelligencer senior staff reporter Gina
Passarella. “The Schickrams had previously settled with the dog
owner, Pamela Leader, for $300,000–the policy limits of her
homeowners’ insurance.”

The total settlement and the amount paid by a third party
appeared to be the highest yet disclosed in a nonfatal dog attack.
However, few such settlements are made public.
Summarized Passarella, “Evelyn and Larry Schickram were
driving to a home inspection prior to the purchase of a house in June
2006. When Evelyn got out of the car, a 118-pound Rottweiler who
allegedly broke free from a dog tie-out cable in the next-door
neighbor’s yard attacked her.”
“After settling with the homeowner, who immediately after
the attack turned the dog over to be put down, Schickram sued tether
cord distributor Boss Pet Products, seller PetSmart, and the
manufacturer, Shanghai Kington Trading Co. PetSmart had an
indemnification agreement with Boss, so they shared representation,”
Passarella wrote.
Evelyn Schickram suffered permanent injuries to both arms,
including chronic pain and loss of ability to lift heavy objects.
However, unlike many victims of severe dog attacks, she was not
facially disfigured. The highest previous known dog attack liability
awards involved facial disfigurement. The size of the Schickram
settlement implies that settlements for facial disfigurement may now
run higher, though limited by the ability of the defendants to pay.
The case has implications for animal shelters and rescues
because in adopting out dogs they are in a position similar to that
of Boss Pet Products. In legal definition, adopting out a dog and
selling a tie-out cable both carry the same implication that the
“product,” dog or cable, will be safe in normal situations,
including predictable times of elevated stress, such as the arrival
of a stranger.
Much as animal shelters and rescues try to protect themselves
with behavioral screening and liability waivers signed by adopters,
Boss Pet Products tried to protect itself with warnings printed on
the tie-cable packaging that spelled out the limitations of safe use,
and even stated that tie-out cables are not to be used to restrain
“mean or vicious” dogs.
“According to their pretrial memorandum,” wrote Passarella,
“Boss Pet Products and PetSmart argued that upon purchase Pamela
Leader tied the cord around a tree and left it there for a year,
exposed to the elements. They said the cable was visibly worn and
rusted in various locations and Leader should have stopped using it,
according to the court papers.”
In the end, however, Boss Pet Products and PetSmart
accepted $1.6 million worth of liability for the attack–$700,000
more than their best previous offer, according to their attorney,
Thomas F. Sacchetta.
The numbers of known dog attack death and disfigurement cases
involving dogs in custody of shelters and rescues, or recently
rehomed, soared from just two in the 20 years previous to 2000, to
10 in 2009 alone. Twenty of the 31 known cases since 2000 involved
pit bull terriers. Three cases resulted in fatalities, 14 cases
involved facial disfigurement, and two cases involved arm injuries
similar to Evelyn Schickham’s.

Shelter dog attacks in Indiana

Two of the first shelter dog attack cases in 2010 occurred in
Indianapolis and suburbs. Indianapolis council member Mike Speedy in
mid-2009 sought unsuccessfully to introduce a bylaw similar to one in
effect in San Francisco since 2007 which requires that pit bulls must
be sterilized. San Francisco animal care and control director
Rebecca Katz credits the ordinance with effecting a 30% drop in the
numbers of pit bulls killed by her department due to dangerous
Humane Society of Indianapolis director John Aleshire
prominently opposed the Speedy bylaw. On January 8, 2010 the Humane
Society of Indianapolis adopted out a pit bull who had cleared
behavioral screening to Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn
Middleton, 25, who already had another pit bull. On January 12 a
neighbor called 911 to report dangerous behavior by Middleton’s dogs.
On March 4 the dogs escaped and mauled James Bates, 23. The dogs
chased Bates’ mother, Queen Bates, 71, when she tried to stop the
“Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer Marlon
Minor shot both dogs, killing one, when they went after him as he
tried to help Bates,” reported John Tuohy of the Indianapolis Star.
The wounded dog was later euthanized.
“Middleton was cited for owner responsibility for animal
attack, having animals at large, having no rabies vaccination for
one of the dogs, and having no permanent identification for the
dogs,” said Tuohy.
“On March 16,” reported Melanie D. Hayes of the Indianapolis
Star, “Zachary Handzel, 6, of Noblesville, was visiting the
Hamilton County Humane Society with his aunt when he opened the door
to a visitation room and was attacked by a pit bull, according to
the incident report, said the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department
spokeswoman Vicky Dunbar. The dog had been secluded in the
visitation room because he had been medicated for a pinched nerve,
Dunbar said. The windows were covered with paper, and signs warned
people that the room was a restricted area, but the doors were not
locked, Dunbar said. Handzel suffered injuries to his face, hand,
wrist, ankle, and foot. “Ironically,” Hayes noted, “March is Pit
Bull Education month” at the shelter.
“We certainly didn’t anticipate a six-year old to read ‘do
not enter’ signs; however, his guardian should have,” Hamilton
County Humane Society board president Joe Ridenour e-mailed to
Speedy. “The facility is filled with stressed out dogs and cats who
can be unpredictable, regardless of breed. For this reason, we
require that all children be supervised during visitation. We have
that information posted before entering our building and again when
entering the kennels.”
ANIMAL PEOPLE asked Ridenour why no staff or trained
volunteers accompanied Handzel and his aunt. “Neither the Humane
Society of Indianapolis nor Indianapolis Animal Care and Control
escort every patron seeking to adopt a pet. None in central
Indiana” require that all visitors be escorted, Ridenour responded.
Surveying 21 shelter directors and other senior personnel
around the U.S., whose experience covers more than 50 shelters,
ANIMAL PEOPLE learned that 48% of the shelters they have worked at do
not allow any unescorted public access to animal holding areas; 52%
do not allow children to be unescorted. 29% allow unescorted access,
by either children or adults, to areas where animals are offered for
adoption. Only 14% allow children to have unescorted access to other
A visitation room is usually adjacent to areas where animals
are offered for adoption, and is usually considered an adoption area.
The shelters that do not allow unescorted public access to
animal holding areas included several of the leading adoption
shelters in the world, while several that allow unescorted access
have low adoption rates. Explanation: the escorts help to promote
successful adoptions.
“I know there is a growing movement to open up animal areas
to the public so that any animal may have a chance to be seen and
adopted,” offered Paul Miller, executive director of the Humane
Society of Washington County, in Hagersville, Maryland. But Miller
disagrees with the practice, summarizing comments offered by many
other survey respondents.
“We have had individuals take cell phone pictures of dogs in
our adoption kennels and then two days later claim to have found
their missing dog,” Miller said. “At other facilities that have
opened up all their animal areas, I have heard that the public seems
to be drawn to those animals not yet in adoption,” who are perceived
as being most in need of rescue. “If an animal is reclaimed, or
fails to pass assessments, then the ‘wanter’ will sometimes react
negatively,” Miller said.
The adoption risk issue meanwhile expanded to Britain when
facially disfigured pit bull attack victim Patrick Hamnett, 47,
told media he would sue College Garth Rescue Kennels in Hathern.
Hamnett was attacked on March 18, 2010 while feeding a Staffordshire
bull terrier whom the Hamnett family had adopted just half an hour
“The matter has been passed to our insurers,” said College
Garth Rescue Kennels director John Barker.

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