I previously reported a verdict rendered in a bizarre dog bite incident that occurred in Washington state in August, 2007. In this case plaintiff, Sue Gorman, was viciously attacked and mauled by several pit bulls who entered her bedroom while she was sleeping.
The case went to trial in Tacoma, Washington in July, 2011. Defendants in the case were not only the dog owners but also the entity of Pierce County which oversaw the county’s animal control division. The jury found both Pierce County and the owners of the dogs liable and awarded a total of $2.2 million to the plaintiff. Pierce County was found 42% at fault, and the dog owners shared the rest of the responsibility minus 1% which was attributed to the fault of the plaintiff for her contributory negligence. The plaintiff’s contributory negligence was based in part because she did not close her sliding glass door when she went to sleep. Her failure to do this allowed the dogs to enter her bedroom. The plaintiff knew that these dogs had entered her house through the sliding glass door on a previous occasion.
Pierce County appealed on the grounds of the improper jury instructions and also because of the defendant’s belief that aspects of the law were not properly in reaching the verdict that Pierce County was liable. Nonetheless, the appellate court upheld the verdict rendered by the trial court in January, 2014. Subsequently the defendants appealed to the Washington state Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
My interest in this matter stems from the fact that the substance of this lawsuit is similar to other lawsuits where legal action has been taken against animal control authorities and municipalities for their failure to protect public from dog attacks. I previously made a post about one such action which settled for $325,000 in Santa Monica, California in October 2010. In another dog bite lawsuit, plaintiff Krystal Cooney settled with the Parlier Unified School District of Fresno County, California for $190,000 in August, 2011. Cooney was mauled by a pack of stray dogs which had taken up residence on the property of the school grounds. Employees of the school were aware of the presence of the dogs because these dogs had previously killed livestock on the school grounds. The school district used the livestock (e.g. sheep) for teaching purposes. Cooney was attacked when she was walking past the open field where the dogs lived. The school district was deemed liable because of their negligence. This was readily established because they had prior knowledge about the presence of the dangerous dogs on their property.
Municipalities and animal control agencies may be sued for negligence if they do not take adequate steps to protect the public from dangerous dogs. Negligence can arise in a number of ways. Often it stems from the failure of animal control to conduct a dangerous dog hearing given that they had prior knowledge that the dog in question was potentially dangerous. What animal control knows about a dog’s dangerous propensities may be delivered to them in a number of ways such as complaints they receive about the dog, prior dog bite incidences involving the dog in question, or knowledge they have that the dog previously escaped from the property in which it was kept. In other cases animal control agencies may be on the hook if they adopt a dog and the dog subsequently bites a person.
In most cases, if a dog meets the legal criteria as specified in the municipal code for being “potentially dangerous”, then in almost all cases it is mandatory that animal control conduct a dangerous dog hearing. If they fail to take this step and the dog in question subsequently attacks and injures a person, then the municipality is likely to be sued. If a dog is declared dangerous or potentially dangerous at a dangerous dog hearing, then legally animal control must take the necessary steps to remedy the situation. Often this takes the form of placing restrictions on the dog (for example, padlocks on the gates), but the restrictions or rulings may be more severe such as revoking the license of the dog. It is usually argued that if such restrictions were in place then the incident which led to the injury of the plaintiff would not have occurred.
More to the point, in her ruling in the Gorman matter the appellate judge wrote:
“Here, while some of the steps in the process are discretionary, the code did require Pierce County to take action if certain conditions existed. If the county was made aware of a likely potentially dangerous dog, it had a duty to evaluate the dog to determine if it was potentially dangerous. Then, if the dog was declared potentially dangerous, the code mandated that the county take corrective action, seizing and impounding any dog whose owner allowed it to violate the restrictions placed upon it.”
Animal behavior dog bite expert witness, Richard Polsky, PhD, provides expert witness services to attorneys in Washington state. Dr. Polsky has been retained on approximately a dozen occasions by both plaintiff and defense attorneys in the state of Washington and he has been qualified in court in Washington state as a dog bite expert. Dr. Polsky invites inquiries from attorneys interested in retaining a dog bite expert.