by Merritt Clifton
DECATUR, Georgia––Five years of legal and political history resulting from a March 9, 2010 pit bull attack on then-eight-year-old Erin Ingram gained another chapter on January 12, 2015 when DeKalb County senior judge Matthew Robins overruled a jury award to Ingram of $72 million and instead awarded Ingram and her family almost $37 million.
Ingram lost part of one arm, lost partial use of the other arm, and suffered severe injuries to both ankles. The dogs had histories of attacking other children in the neighborhood, witnesses testified. Decatur police sergeant R.P. Wheeler beat the dogs off of Ingram with his baton, then fatally shot one of them when he was attacked himself.
Explained Judge Robins, “The verdict of the jury awards to the plaintiff the sum of $36,691,278.50 in compensatory damage. The Court adopts the compensatory award as the judgment of this Court. The jury further awarded to the plaintiff the sum of $36 million in punitive damages. However,” under Georgia law, “the award for punitive damages is capped at $250,000.00 in this case.
“Therefore,” ruled Robins, “Defendant Twyann Artrell Vaughn shall pay to the plaintiff a total amount of $36,941,278.50.”
Five times higher than previous record
While Robins reduced the final award to Ingram and family by nearly half, it remains more than five times higher than the highest known previous award in a dog attack case.
Alan Hill, of Independence, Missouri, was in June 2008 awarded more than $7 million by Jackson County Circuit Judge Vernon Scoville. Hill on May 4, 2006 barely survived a mauling by three pit bulls who also injured two other men.
The owner of the pit bulls, Paul Piper, 34 at the time, was sentenced to serve two years on probation for the attack. Bryan Smith, also 34, was sentenced to serve 100 days in jail, spend two years on probation, and do 100 hours of community service for releasing the pit bulls through a window.
Neighbor Earl D. Howard Jr. testified that Smith had said he would release the pit bulls “to see what kind of trouble” they could cause.”
Saginaw County, Michigan Circuit Judge Fred L. Borchard appears to have issued the second highest award for dog attack damages on public record when on July 17, 2011 he signed default judgments against Anthony D. Hunt, 35, and Shamorrow S. Amos, 27, ordering them to pay $2 million each to pit bull mauling victims Duane VanLanHam, 51, and Bridgetta Hadley, 43. Hadley was attacked on March 5, 2009 outside of her home in Saginaw; 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.”
Meanwhile back in DeKalb County
The award in the Ingram case, like the award in the Hill case and the VanLanHam/Hadley case, is expected to be largely symbolic.
Twyann Vaughn, owner of the dogs who attacked Ingram, was in 2012 sentenced to serve 16 months in jail, spend 36 months on probation, and perform 240 hours of community service for violations of the Georgia Vicious Dog Act.
Despite the severity of the Ingram mauling, the DeKalb County commissioners in May 2012 repealed a ban on possession of pit bulls, responding to a campaign led by Best Friends Network volunteer and vet tech trainee Rebecca Carey.
Carey, 23, was on August 13, 2012 found dead at her home from neck and upper torso injuries inflicted by one or more of the five dogs in her care. Carey was discovered by her friend Jackie Cira, whose Presa Canario Carey was looking after, along with her own Presa Canario, two pit bulls, and a boxer mix.
$1.12 million award in Washington
The award in the Ingram case came eight months after Superior Court Judge Stan Rumbaugh, of Pierce County, Washington, awarded $1.12 million to the family of Nga Woodhead, who was 65 when fatally mauled by two pit bulls belonging to neighbor Santiago Quezada.
The award was unusual because Woodhead actually died from a heart attack a week after the mauling, rather than from dog bite injuries, although she suffered the heart attack while hospitalized because of the dog bites, and because Quezada was not criminally charged.
Reported Tacoma News Tribune staff writer Sean Robinson, “Attorney Jason Whalen represented Charles Woodhead, Nga’s husband. Whalen noted that the family probably won’t be able to collect the debt. He said it becomes part of an official record and sends a message to owners of dangerous dogs who do not take proper steps to restrain them.”
Animal control responsibility
The Woodhead award, while in six figures, was barely half the highest on record in Pierce County. The Washington State Court of Appeals in August 2013 upheld a Pierce County jury award of $2.2 million in damages to pit bull victim Sue Gorman, 65, of Gig Harbor.
Gorman was mauled, her service dog injured, and a visiting Jack Russell terrier was killed by two pit bulls who burst into her home through an open sliding glass door late on August 21, 2007.
The jury directed Pierce County to pay $924,000 to Gorman, 42% of the total award, for alleged negligence in responding to as many as 14 previous complaints about the pit bulls.
Pit bull keepers Shellie Wilson and her son Zachary Martin were held to be 52% responsible for the attack, 5% of the blame was assigned to the legal owner of one pit bull, who had left the dog with Wilson and Martin, and Gorman was held 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.
Los Angeles County lawsuits
The Gorman case appeared to have significantly increased the potential liability of animal control agencies in cases of alleged neglect of duties.
Possibly encouraged by the Gorman outcome, widower Benjamin DeVitt on January 5, 2015 sued Los Angeles County Animal Control and sued Los Angeles County Animal Control director Marcia Mayeda personally for alleged inadequate response to repeated complaints about free-roaming pit bulls kept by Alex Jackson, 31, of Little Rock, California. Four of Jackson’s pit bulls on May 9, 2013 fatally mauled DeVitt’s wife, Pamela DeVitt, 63, as she jogged nearby.
Jackson, an illegal marijuana grower, was convicted of second degree murder, and on October 3, 2014 was sentenced to serve 15 years to life in prison.
But the local precedents for collecting damages from animal control suggest Benjamin DeVitt will have an uphill struggle.
Ruling in a parallel case, Justice Elizabeth Grimes of the California Second Appellate District Court of Appeal held on September 12, 2012 that Los Angeles County Animal Control was not liable for failure to impound two pit bulls kept by John Bowles of Little Rock.
Bowles’ pit bulls allegedly killed two goats and were the subjects of nine complaints to Los Angeles County Animal Control between April 2007 and June 2009. In September 2009 two of the pit bulls jumped a fence and mauled a boy named Kameron Faten.
A Rottweiler named Romeo
The California appellate decision came just over a year after the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Indiana Tort Claims Act gave the Evansville animal control department immunity from lawsuits, as a law enforcement agency. 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 Davis’ son Shawn Davis, then six years old. His medical bills totaled $16,000.
However, Humboldt County, California did not appeal an August 8, 2011 jury award of up to $401,786 to former McKinleyville Animal Care Center receptionist Elena Esquivel, 29. The actual payout, based on Esquivel’s medical expenses, was $301,339.
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.
The $37 million award to victim Ingram and family in DeKalb County, Georgia, followed a string of court decisions favoring insurance companies over dog attack victims. Three such verdicts came in the last week of December 2014.
In Madison, Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Supreme Court “concluded 6-1 that owning the property on which a dog resides isn’t enough to establish that person owns the dog,” summarized Todd Richmond of Associated Press. Writing for the majority, Justice Anne Walsh Bradley opined that courts must take into consideration an entire array of circumstances before concluding that a landlord is culpable for damages in the event of a dog attack.
Wrote Richmond, “According to court documents, George Kontos allowed his daughter and her family to live on his property in Winnebago County for free. Kontos’ daughter invited Julie Augsburger to visit in June 2008. As she was walking to a barn on the property, the dogs attacked her, biting her at least 11 times and tearing her pants off. Augsburger sued, alleging Kontos was liable. A judge ruled Kontos was the dogs’ owner and could be held responsible. An appeals court affirmed that conclusion. The Supreme Court reversed that finding.”
Concluded Bradley, “Although Kontos provided shelter for his daughter and family by buying the house for them to live in, he exercised no control over that property. Ultimately, it was his daughter who provided shelter to the dogs.”
Justice David Prosser noted in his dissenting opinion that Kontos in providing the home to his daughter enabled her to keep the dogs; could have had them removed from the property, but did not; and that the majority opinion re-victimized Augsberger by preventing her from collecting damages.
The Kontos case echoed some of the particulars in Tracey v. Solesky, a case also involving a disfiguring dog attack and an indigent tenant, in which the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in April 2012 that “When an attack involves pit bulls, it is no longer necessary to prove that the particular pit bull or pit bulls are dangerous,” as a requirement of establishing
negligence and therefore economic responsibility for an attack on the part of the pit bull keeper.
Unable to recover medical expenses from the tenant whose pit bull attacked their son in April 2007, the Solesky family sued landlord Dorothy M. Tracey, for allegedly renting premises that were inadequate to contain the tenant’s dogs.
In 35 other states–70% of the U.S.–“strict liability” laws were in effect, holding that the person in possession of a dog is responsible for whatever harm the dog does. Courts had ruled in several states that this includes landlords who rent properties that are unsafe for keeping dogs, or allow tenants to keep dogs in an unsafe manner.
South Carolina precedent
The South Carolina Supreme Court, for instance, unanimously ruled on August 22, 2011 that the estate of deceased landlord Edward Carter should pay $17,000 in medical bills to Theresa Charlene Clea, mother of Trevon Clea, of Sumter. Trevon Clea, then two years old, was attacked in 2003 by a chained pit bull belonging to Essix Shannon in a common area of Carter’s rental property.
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.
Maryland, however, was still a “one free bite” state, where the person in possession of a dog had historically not been held responsible for foreseeing and preventing dog attacks if the dog had no history of biting. And, unlike the dog who attacked Clea, the dog who attacked Solesky’s son had no such history on record.
Subsequent to the Solesky verdict, the Maryland legislature in April 2014 erased the legal presumption that pit bulls are dangerous, and instead made Maryland also a “strict liability” state.
“Insured” means “no recovery”
A week prior to the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in the Kontas case, the Nebraska Supreme Court held that Omaha dog attack victim Jennifer Van Keek is not entitled to recover medical benefits from Farmers Insurance Exchange because she was covered by the policy.
Recounted Margery A. Beck of Associated Press of the paradoxical verdict, “Van Kleek 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. She underwent reconstructive surgery to repair the damage and filed a claim with Farmers Insurance Exchange, the home insurance provider for the owners.
“Farmers denied her claim for medical benefits and liability,” Beck continued, “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 that excludes coverage for bodily injury to anyone insured under the policy.”
Yet another disappointing verdict for dog attack victims came on December 26, 2014 from the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, which held that a jury should not have found Carla Ramirez Cornelio guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Emako Mendoza, 75, who succumbed on Christmas Eve 2011 to injuries inflicted by Cornelio’s two pit bulls on June 18, 2011.
Originally sentenced to serve four years in jail, Cornelio was remanded for re-sentencing for owning an animal who kills a human, also a felony in California, for which she was also convicted in February 2013.
The two pit bulls were kept in a yard belonging to Alba Cornelio, Carla Cornelio’s mother, who was also convicted of involuntary manslaughter and owning an animal who kills a human, but died in March 2013, before being sentenced.
Carla Cornelio’s attorneys contended, wrote Don Bauder of the San Diego Reader, “that the law applying to an owner of an animal that kills a human pre-empted the law that describes involuntary manslaughter because the first law is more specific and more applicable to the circumstances.”
Wins for victims
Earlier in 2014, however, a string of verdicts favored dog attack victims.
On August 15, 2014, for instance, Shaylayne Doss of Bloomington, Illinois, was sentenced to 30 months probation and ordered to pay $88,000 restitution for medical expenses incurred by woman who was delivering telephone books, after Doss’ pit bull pushed through a door to attack her. with her husband, was severely injured when the dog pushed through a door.
Doss “also was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service. A 60-day jail term was stayed pending a remission hearing,” wrote Edith Brady-Lunny of the Bloomington Pantagraph.
In July 2014 a jury in Chesapeake, Virginia awarded $150,000 to former Hickory Veterinary Hospital employee Erinn Booth Dukeman, who was in March 2011 attacked on the job by a Rottweiler belonging to David and Gretchen Dixon.
Also in July 2014, the Wisconsin District III Court of Appeals ruled that state law does not require the victim of a pack attack to prove that any of the pack members were the same individual dogs involved in previous attacks in order to establish that the owner should have known the dogs were dangerous, if the same pack was involved.
Victim Ann Marie Schroeder was injured in 2009 by a pack of 11 dachshunds who had previously injured a neighbor and another dog on another occasion. Schroeder received $2,491.15 in actual damages, but also sought punitive damages.
“It is sufficient that the dogs were part of the same group that had participated in previous attacks,” wrote Judge Mark Managerson in a 15-page opinion.
Theories of recovery
In May 2014 Pennsylvania dog bite attorney Thomas J. Newell claimed in a prepared statement to have “obtained a legal decision [in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas] “that has opened up new avenues of recovery for Pennsylvania dog bite victims.”
Pursuing a case involving an attack by three unleashed boxers on a FedEx delivery person in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, Newell won consent from Judge William T. Tully to “present to a Dauphin County jury seven legal theories of recovery” of damages for the victim, including punitive damages.
The seven theories include the “prior vicious propensities” of the boxers, who had previously threatened delivery persons without actually harming any; the previous conviction of the owner for failing to confine the boxers; a strict liability claim for recovery of the victim’s medical bills, without necessity of proving negligence on the part of the owner.
Said Newell, “I am unaware of any prior court decisions allowing a dog bite victim to pursue punitive damages via multiple legal theories. Equally important is my belief that this is the first Pennsylvania legal opinion that allows a dog bite victim to pursue a punitive damage claim without proof of any prior or subsequent physical attack upon another person or animal.”
“This legal decision, in my opinion, opens up new avenues of economic recovery for innocent dog bite victims, and places greater accountability on those dog owners whom a jury would find to be reckless.”