Pierce County to appeal $2 million award to dog attack victim

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2011:

TACOMA,  EUREKA,  EVANSVILLE--Pierce County,  Washington,  on August 24,  2011 filed notice of intent to appeal an August 12 jury award of $2.2 million to pit bull terrier attack victim Sue Gorman, 63,  of Gig Harbor.

The jury directed Pierce County to pay damages of $924,000 to Gorman for alleged negligence in responding to many previous complaints about the pit bulls who burst through an open sliding glass door late the night of August 21,  2007,  mauling her service dog and killing a Jack Russell terrier whom Gorman was keeping for a friend.  Awakened by the attack,  Gorman was injured when she tried to intervene.

Pierce Couny “had 14 complaints” about one of the pit bulls, named Betty,  attorney Michael McKasy told Adam Lynn of the Tacoma News Tribune.  “That dog could have and should have been confiscated,”  McKasy argued.   Gorman was represented by two attorneys,  McKasy and Shelly Speir.

The jury found Pierce County to be 42% responsible for the attack,  held pit bull keepers Shellie Wilson and her son Zachary Martin to be 52% responsible,  assigned 5% of the blame to the legal owner of one of the pit bulls,   who had left the dog with Wilson and Martin,  and held Gorman to be 1% responsible for having left her sliding door open so that her dog and the Jack Russell terrier could let themselves in and out.

Pierce County risk manager Mark Maenhout told Lynn of the News Tribune that the county is appealing the verdict because the county believes its animal control offiers “acted reasonably given the information available to them and because the law in our state does not make local governments liable for the carelessness of dog owners merely because cities and counties have regulatory authority over dogs.”

The Indiana Supreme Court on June 21,  2011 ruled in a parallel case that the Indiana Tort Claims Act gave the Evansville animal control department “law enforcement immunity.”   Plaintiff Misty Davis contended that Evansville animal control improperly returned a Rottweiler named Romeo to his keeper in 2007 after Romeo attacked a child.  Six months later,  Romeo mauled her son Shawn Davis,  then 6 years old.  His medical bills totaled $16,000.

“Davis’ attorney argued that law enforcement immunity didn’t apply because the complaint wasn’t based on the defendants failure to enforce the law,  but instead,  on their failure to follow their own procedures in determining whether an animal is dangerous,”  wrote Evansville Courier & Press reporter Samm Quinn.

However,  Humboldt County,  California,  is reportedly not appealing an August 8,  2011 jury award of approximately $300,000 to $411,000 to former McKinleyville Animal Care Center receptionist Elena Esquivel,  29.  The size of the award will vary depending on the final settlement of Esquivel’s medical bills.  The jury found that Esquivel suffered damages in excess of $548,000,  but held her 25% responsible for her own disfiguring injuries because she walked in front of a leashed pit bull who was in the back of an animal control truck.

Impounded after biting three other people,  in 2004,  2007, and 2008,  the pit bull was taken to the McKinleyville Animal Care Center on September 15,  2008 to receive a rabies vaccination, recounted Thadeus Greenson of the Eureka Times-Standard,  citing testimony from Esquivel’s attorney,  Patrik Griego.  After the vaccination,  animal control officer Tracy Barnwell was trying to close the back door of the truck,  with the leash “wrapped around the dog’s snout as a type of muzzle,”  Greenson wrote,  when the dog “leaped from the back of the truck, dragging Barnwell behind him,” to attack Esquivel.  Humboldt County attorney Nancy Delaney told Greenson that the county will not appeal because it had expected to pay more.

Uncollectable awards

While precedents governing animal control liability for dog attacks remain varied,  judgements against the legal owners of dogs who inflict disfiguring injuries continue to rise–with the complication that few of the victims are ever able to collect.

In Michigan,  Saginaw County Circuit Judge Fred L. Borchard on July 17,  2011 signed default judgments against Anthony D. Hunt, 35,  and Shamorrow S. Amos,   27,  ordering them to pay $2 million each to pit bull attack victims Duane VanLanHam,  51,  and Bridgetta Hadley,  43,  who were mauled on March 5, 2009 outside of Hadley’s home in Saginaw.  Hadley was attacked first.  VanLanHam came to her aid.  They are “unlikely to ever see money,”  wrote Andy Hoag of the Saginaw News,  because “Hunt is imprisoned until 2015 for possessing the dogs that attacked Hadley and VanLanHam.  Amos is on probation until 2013 for the same crime and receives disability payments from the federal Social Security Administration because,  the administration states in court documents, she has ‘anxiety-related disorders and schizophrenia,   paranoia,  or other functional psychotic disorders.'”

Three weeks earlier,  Georgia State Judge W. O’Neal Dettmering Jr.,  of Douglas County,  awarded a default judgement of $700,000 to Dakota Holt,  age 8 when he suffered disfiguring injuries from a pit bull at the home of defendant Chaye Hawkins.  “Hawkins had been cited at least 10 times over a four-month period for violating the county’s leash law before her dog Rambo attacked Dakota,”  wrote Christopher Seward of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  “A month before the attack,  the dog mauled another neighbor in her driveway,” Seward added.  Hawkins’ whereabouts are unknown.

Landlord liability

While tenants may relocate outside a court’s jurisdiction, landlords who knowingly rent to people who keep dangerous dogs are more accessible–and legally vulnerable,  the South Carolina Supreme Court unanimously ruled on August 22,  2011.   The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled on behalf of Theresa Charlene Clea,  mother of Trevon Clea,  of Sumter,  who was two years old when he was attacked in 2003 by a chained pit bull belonging to Essix Shannon in a common area of a rental property owned by Edward Carter,  now deceased. Trevon Clea had $17,000 in medical bills.

Shannon had kept the pit bull chained on the property for 10 years,  the South Carolina Supreme Court noted,  and the dog had previously attacked another child on the property.  Thus,  the court found,  Carter “had actual knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensity” and “failed to remedy the situation.”

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