Kentucky legislature goes the opposite way
ATLANTA, Georgia; FRANKFORT, Kentucky––A March 6, 2017 unanimous verdict from the Georgia Supreme Court will help Georgia dog attack victims to recover damages from dog owners and caretakers, but a new Kentucky law that cleared the state legislature later the same day will work to opposite effect.
Neither the Georgia Supreme Court ruling nor the Kentucky law will directly affect verdicts and legislation in other states, but either or both could influence other courts and and legislatures.
The Georgia Supreme Court “revives a lawsuit filed by Lori Steagald against her Henry County neighbors, David and Cheryl Eason, and their son Joshua Eason, who owned the pit bull” who mauled her on December 2, 2011, reported Atlanta Journal-Constitution criminal justice writer Bill Rankin.
“Snap is a bite that missed”
The decision, assessed Rankin, “sets an important precedent in Georgia in that it helps courts determine whether dog owners may be held liable for their pet’s attack. The question, the court said, is whether the dog previously exhibited such dangerous behavior that its owner should have known it had a tendency to attack. The court said if a dog had previously snapped at someone — not actually bitten someone — that could be enough to show that the owner knew he or she had a vicious animal.”
The Georgia Supreme Court verdict, elaborated attorney Andrew Gebhardt, who represented Steagald, “recognizes that a snap is nothing more than a bite that missed its target.”
Overturns “first bite rule”
Wrote Rankin, “Under Georgia law, a person who owns a vicious animal can be found liable if the animal gets free and attacks someone. But the law does not presume that dogs are vicious; in fact, they are considered to be ‘a harmless species.’ For dog-bite victims to prevail,” in a lawsuit seeking compensation for injuries, “they must show the dog owner knew his pet had a propensity for violence. In the past, Georgia’s courts have cited the ‘first bite rule’ — that the dog had previously bitten someone and the owner knew about it.
“The Georgia Court of Appeals had previously dismissed Steagald’s suit,” Rankin recounted. “It found that the prior incidents of Rocks snapping at Cheryl Eason and Gary Steagald amounted to ‘merely menacing behavior.’
Meanwhile in Kentucky
Meanwhile in Kentucky, Governor Matt Bevin is expected to promptly sign into law a bill passed by the state senate on March 6, 2017 which shields landlords from liability for attacks by their tenants’ dogs––and does nothing to require that tenants’ dogs are adequately insured to cover whatever injuries they might inflict.
HB 112, approved by the Kentucky senate by a vote of 32-5, previously cleared the Kentucky house of representatives, 87-9.
Kentucky law previously recognized legal liability for a dog attack on the part of anyone who “Keeps or harbors the dog, or has it in his care, or permits it to remain on or about premises owned or occupied by him.”
HB 112 amends this definition to anyone who “Keeps or harbors the dog; has the dog in his care; permits the dog to remain on or about premises owned and occupied by him; or permits the dog to remain on or about premises leased and occupied by him.”
The significant difference is that under HB 112, if a tenant is liable for a dog attack, a landlord is not.
“The measure stems from a 2012 Kentucky Supreme Court ruling that said landlords could be liable if their tenants’ dogs bite people,” explained Bruce Scheiner of Associated Press. “The court’s decision expanded the definition of a ‘dog owner’ to include landlords in dog attack cases, the bill’s supporters said. The ruling meant landlords could be found liable for dog attacks even if they had no knowledge of the animal’s existence or tendency to bite, they said.”
Uninsured renter’s boxer mauled child
The 2012 Kentucky Supreme Court case originated in July 2009 when a 10-month-old boxer belonging to renter Catherine Black mauled seven-year-old Andrew Fuller.
The Fuller family’s insurance policy covered Andrew Fuller’s immediate medical expenses, but not the cost of reconstructive surgery to repair a mangled ear and visible scars on his scalp.
The Fuller family sued both Black and landlord JoAnn Blair. While the Kentucky Supreme Court found that Blair might potentially have been liable, only Black was actually held liable, for damages amounting to $80,000.
As Black was uninsured, she was ordered to pay $78 per pay period toward satisfying the judgement. This meant that even if Black was continuously employed and paid weekly, paying the $80,000 without interest would take 20 years.
Rental company allegedly failed to enforce “no pits” policy
HB 112 cleared the Kentucky legislature three weeks after pit bull attack victim Jimmy Huen, of Harris County, Texas, sued the rental management company Parawest Management for $100,000 in medical expenses and lost wages suffered as result of a September 11, 2015 mauling at Braesridge Apartments on Westpark Drive in Houston.
Huen alleges that he was injured because Parawest Management failed to enforce a written pet policy excluding pit bulls from the premises, did not require that resident pets be licensed, and “failed to act with ordinary care and prudence” in allowing the pit bull to roam at large within the Braesridge Apartments complex.
Both the passage of Kentucky HB 112 and the Huen lawsuit came against a backdrop of increasingly frequent six-and-seven-figure awards and settlements in disfiguring dog attack cases––and of insurance companies and uninsured defendants evading or delaying payouts.
In Tampa, Florida, for instance, SierraLynn Hoffman, now 10, in November 2016 won a judicial ruling that the Coyle Construction company could be liable for as much as $1.5 million in connection with facial injuries that Hoffman suffered from a November 2012 pit bull attack in the Coyle parking lot.
But, reported Tampa Bay Times staff writer Dan Sullivan, “Lynda and Joseph Coyle, owners of Coyle Construction, want United Specialty Insurance Co. to help pay the settlement of $945,000, arguing in recently filed court documents that the amount puts Coyle at risk of financial ruin. United Specialty has previously declined to provide coverage.”
$5.1 million award with slim chance of collecting
Attacked by two pit bulls while walking to work in November 2015, Joseph Mooring of Bryan, Texas on January 27, 2017 was awarded $5.1 million for permanent nerve damage to his right leg and forearm by 85th District Court Judge Kyle Hawthorne.
But “The likelihood of Mooring collecting the money is slim, as it’s not clear if there are any assets or insurance to satisfy the judgment,” reported Caitlin Clark of the Bryan-College Station Eagle.
Settlements in Connecticut
Suffering comparable injuries, Mitchell Ducharme, of Lebanon, Connecticut, on January 25, 2017 accepted compensation of $422,018 for injuries inflicted by two pit bulls at the Coutu Auto Sales junkyard in Willimantic.
The defendants agreed to the settlement on the same day that jury selection was to begin in Rockville Superior Court, wrote Robert Storace of The Connecticut Law Tribune.
Just a week later, Jo-Lynne Grillo of New London, Connecticut accepted a pre-trial settlement of $300,000 for injuries she suffered when attacked by a pit bull staying at the Marriott Residence Inn in Mystic. Her case was to go to trial on February 27, 2017.
$850,000 for pet sitter
A verdict favoring pet sitters who are attacked by the animals they are looking after came from a Morris County, New Jersey jury on February 21, 2017, who awarded $850,000 to Jennifer Reid of Denville, New Jersey for extensive facial and spinal injuries suffered in a July 2012 attack by an 80-pound German shepherd/chow mix.
Unknown to Reid, who was looking after the dog without compensation, the German shepherd/chow mix had previously attacked two other people.
Reid initially sought compensation of $285,000 to settle the case, but the homeowner’s insurance company elected to offer nothing and to fight the claim. The first trial, in June 2015, brought a jury award of $100,000, but nothing for the spinal injuries. The judge later agreed that he had misinstructed the jury, leading to the second trial that awarded the $850,000.
“Dog owner is always responsible”
The second trial in the Reid case followed a November 2016 ruling by the Third Florida Court of Appeal that “A dog owner is always responsible when the animal bites someone—even if that person stepped into a dog fight,” summarized Daily Business Review reporter Celia Ampel.
In the Florida case, Miami resident Lisa Arellano “took care of two escaped guard dogs for several days while trying to find their owner,” Ampel explained. “She kept her own dogs separate from the found animals,” whom Arellano housed in her yard, “but when the guard dogs disappeared, she let her dogs into the back yard again. The guard dogs came back, and one of them attacked Arellano’s pet. When she tried to break up the fight, the guard dog bit her and injured her foot.”
The guard dogs were eventually found to belong to Broward K-9/Miami K-9 Services, but when Arellano sued, seeking compensation for her injury, “Miami-Dade Circuit Judge John Schlesinger ruled that once Arellano took in the dogs and broke up the fight, she became liable for her own injuries,” Ampel finished.
The Florida Third District Court of Appeal rejected that line of legal reasoning.
Nebraska pet sitter held to be “owner”
At least two recent cases in other states have gone the opposite way.
Summarized Associated Press writer Margery A. Beck of a December 2014 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling, “Jennifer Van Kleek, of Omaha, cared for her friends’ dog without pay while they were on vacation in July 2011. Several days into her pet-sitting stint, the dog lunged at Van Kleek as she bent over to give him a treat and bit off part of her lip.
“Farmers Insurance Exchange, the home insurance provider for the owners, denied her claim for medical benefits and liability, claiming that because she was caring for the dog, she was legally responsible for it and therefore ‘insured’ under the homeowner’s policy. The policy includes a clause,” Beck explained, “that excludes coverage for bodily injury to anyone insured under the policy.”
In effect, Van Kleek herself was held to be one of the dog’s legal owners, and therefore responsible for her own injury.
Appellate court found pet sitter accepted risk
In a case contrasting with the March 6, 2017 Georgia Supreme Court ruling, the Georgia Court of Appeals in February 2017 ruled that Crabapple Critters pet-sitting service owner Josephine Gilreath knowingly assumed the risk of danger from animals in her care.
Gilreath suffered serious leg injuries that later became infected after she was attacked by a rooster named Sam, who belonged to a flock Gilreath was attending for homeowners Bruce and Jodi Smith.
The Smiths had posted a sign saying “Caution. Area patrolled by Attack Rooster Security Co.,” and had sent Gilreath a Facebook message advising her to “Just throw food in the cages. Rooster will attack.”
Whereas the Georgia Supreme Court found that the Eason family had not taken appropriate precautions to protect Lara Steagald, who had no reason to anticipate that she might be attacked by the Easons’ pit bull, Georgia appellate judges Elizabeth Branch, John Ellington, and Tripp Self agreed that the Smiths’ sign and Facebook message constituted adequate warning to Gilreath that she would have to protect herself when in proximity to Sam.