Record $7 million verdict in pit bull fatality case & related legal updates

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2010:
(published October 5, 2010)
HENDERSON, Texas–A Rusk County District Court jury on
September 17, 2010 held pit bull terrier owners Rick and Christi
George of Leveritt’s Chapel responsible for a record $7 million in
damages for allowing their two dogs to escape and kill skateboarder
Justin Clinton, 10, on June 15, 2009. “The jury heard evidence
from 46 witnesses and viewed 125 exhibits which documented the
vicious attack and conduct of these two animals,” attorney Cynthia
“Although several defense witnesses testified that they had
never seen the dogs act aggressively and one even referred to the
dogs as ‘lovable little fluff balls,’ law enforcement officers and
other witnesses testified to the dogs’ vicious and aggressive nature
as compared to other breeds,” Kent added. Kent, representing the
victim’s family, was previously a district judge in Tyler, Texas.
Soon after the fatal attack Kent announced that she would pursue the
passage of legislation to restrict or prohibit breeding or keeping
pit bulls.

The case revealed that one of the dogs bit the victim
previously, two weeks before the fatal attack, but the earlier bite
was concealed from the boy’s mother, reported Tyler Morning
Telegraph staff writer Betty Waters. The lawsuit argued that “the
dogs had on numerous occasions been aggressive toward people while
running loose in the neighborhood,” said Waters. Fencing that was
allegedly inadequate to contain the dogs was partially at issue. In
addition, Waters wrote, the lawsuit contended that the victim “did
not understand the risks and dangers because of the numerous prior
invitations of the defendants and their family to him and other
children to come over to their premises and visit their children and
play with their family pets, including the two dogs who attacked
The verdict is expected to be appealed. The jury award, the
largest known in a dog attack fatality case, came five months after
a Rottweiler attack case in Chester County, Pennsylvania ended with
an out-of-court settlement for $1.9 million, the largest known award
in a nonfatal disfigurement case and a case in which the largest part
of the payout was to be made by a second party–in that case, the
maker of the dog’s tie-out cable. Second parties in several pending
cases include animal shelters and individual rescuers who have
adopted out dogs who subsequently injured or killed people.
Of 2,976 dogs involved in fatal or disfiguring dog attacks in
the U.S. and Canada logged between September 1982 and the end of
September 2010 by ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton, 1,745 (59%)
were pit bulls and close pit mixes, who make up 4.1% of the dog
population, according to a June 2010 search of 3.2 million
classified ads for dogs offered or sale or adoption. Pit bulls and
close pit mixes had accounted for 181 of 379 fatalities; Rottweilers
had accounted for 73.
Legal trends involving dangerous dogs continue to take
paradoxical directions.
In San Francisco, the California First District Court of
Appeal on August 20, 2010 upheld the 15-years-to-life sentence
given to former Presa Canario keeper Marjorie Knoller, whose two
dogs in January 2001 killed Diane Whipple, 33, at the door to her
apartment. Knoller was initially convicted by jury of second degree
murder. Her husband and law partner Robert Noel was convicted of
involuntary manslaughter.
Superior Court Judge James Warren reduced Knoller’s
conviction to involuntary manslaughter. “But after Knoller served her
four-year manslaughter sentence and was paroled, the state Supreme
Court ruled in 2007 that Warren used the wrong legal standard. The
court said a fatal dog mauling is murder if the owner knew the animal
posed a risk to human life and exposed others to the danger,”
explained San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko. “Applying
that test, Judge Charlotte Woolard reinstated Knoller’s murder
conviction in August 2008 and returned her to prison.”
The North Carolina Corrections Department meanwhile on
September 17, 2010 released David Tant, 63, on parole, after Tant
served just six years of a 30-year sentence for rigging a potentially
lethal booby trap to guard his fighting dog breeding and training
operation. The booby trap nearly killed a surveyor in April 2004,
leading to the discovery of more than 40 pit bull terriers and
training equipment for dogfighting.
“Tant was originally sentenced to 40 years,” recalled the
Charleston Post & Courier. “The sentence was reduced by 10 years
after Tant paid more than $80,000 in restitution to cover the cost of
boarding and feeding the dogs who were seized. All of the dogs were
later euthanized because they were deemed too violent for adoption.
As part of his parole, Tant won’t be allowed to have any connection
with dog ownership or training.”
The contrasting factor in the cases is that Knoller and Noel
were convicted of an accident, albeit an accident that courts have
repeatedly held was foreseeable and predictable, while Tant’s
actions both in rigging the booby trap and in training the dogs were
deliberate by his own admission.
In recent legislative developments, Austria on July 1, 2010
began requiring keepers of pit bulls, Rottweilers, mastiffs, and
several other dog breeds deemed to be abnormally dangerous to carry
special permits verifying their ability to keep and handle the dogs
safely. Denmark on the same day added 13 breeds, mostly derived
from pit bulls, to a list of breeds which may not be bred or
imported, and must be muzzled and restrained when in public places.
Tasmania on July 1, 2010 introduced similar restrictions on
pit bulls, leaving only two Australian states where pit bulls could
be legally bred, after the Queensland Supreme Court ruled that the
definition of “pit bull” includes American Staffardshire terriers.
As Amstaffs are usually regarded as the quintessential pit bulls,
the verdict was unsurprising–but it was undone in September 2010
when the Queensland state parliament passed a bill excluding Amstaffs
from the “pit bull” definition.

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