DETROIT––Wayne County Circuit Judge Daphne Means Curtis on May 19, 2015 awarded $100 million to pit bull attack victim and care volunteer Steven Constantine, 50, sending a “Dog Bite Prevention Week” warning to animal shelters and rescues nationwide.
The $100 million award, against pit bull owner Derrick “Butch” Felton, 61, and his mother, Elizabeth Collins Felton, is the second highest on record for a dog attack, nearly triple the $37 million award issued in January 2015 to pit bull attack victim Erin Ingram by DeKalb County senior judge Matthew Robins, of Decatur, Georgia.
Neither Constantine nor Ingram are likely to ever be paid even in significant part.
Elizabeth Collins Felton is likely to lose her home in partial satisfaction of the Constantine judgment, but the Feltons are private citizens without huge personal resources, not a heavily insured public animal control agency or humane society with extensive property and deep financial reserves.
But Constantine was a volunteer dog-feeder, whose legal status while assisting Derrick Felton in the Felton’s yard and basement differed little from that of tens of thousands of animal shelter and shelterless rescue volunteers and visitors who are at risk every day among dogs who are unfamiliar to them and of unknown background.
“It’s an enormously symbolic statement by the court that this type of conduct is unacceptable in our community,” Constantine’s attorney Mark Bernstein told Corey Williams of Associated Press.
“Not hungry dogs”
Constanine was mauled by 12 pit bulls at about 10:00 p.m. on the night of October 2, 2014. Said Detroit Animal Control chief Harry Ward, observing that the pit bulls had access to commercial dry dog food, “These were not hungry dogs looking for something to eat. This is a classic case of these dogs being out of control on their owner’s property and attacking someone.”
Constantine “lost his left arm, his left leg below the knee and his left ear,” recounted Eric D. Lawrence of the Detroit Free Press. “He also underwent dozens of surgeries,” and faces approximately 35 more to repair his body as much as it can be repaired.
Police reportedly shot one pit bull at the scene and captured 11 others, who were later euthanized. Derrick Felton, who according to Constantine was present during the attack, fled the scene, but was apprehended on March 16, 2015.
“Derrick Felton faces trial in September 2015 on three charges of harboring a dangerous animal causing serious injury,” wrote Williams of Associated Press. If convicted on all three counts, Derrick Felton faces up to 12 years in prison.
In addition, Derrick Felton is charged with five misdemeanors related to the attack, each carrying a maximum penalty of $500 or six months in jail. The misdemeanor charges include harboring dogs without a license, failure to provide proof of rabies vaccination, harboring more than four dogs without a kennel permit, harboring vicious dogs and failing to properly leash or restrain dogs.
Shelters vulnerable to similar verdicts
At least 94 U.S. animal shelters have since 2010 housed or rehomed dogs who subsequently killed or disfigured at least 121 human victims. Among the 132 dogs involved in the 36 fatal and 85 disfiguring attacks were 106 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, and three Rottweilers.
Of the 94 animal shelters that housed or rehomed the dogs involved in attacks, only eight public agencies and two major humane societies appear to have assets and insurance cumulatively adding up to $100 million.
The highest recent verdict known to have actually been paid in a dog attack case not involving a public agency was an insurance settlement of $450,000 paid in March 2015 to Lucille Fundaro, 66, of Staten Island, New York. Fundaro was mauled in August 2013 by a pit bull who was running at large.
Reported Frank Donnelly of the Staten Island Advance, “Fundaro said she stood her ground as the dog tore a thick chunk of flesh from the underside of her right forearm, exposing the bone. A second, smaller pit bull then came over and began sniffing a piece of her flesh, which the larger dog had ripped from her forearm and had dropped on the pavement, she said. The smaller dog’s actions distracted the larger dog, allowing her to escape and quite possibly saving her life. Fundaro sued Helaine DeSilva, who owned the property where the dogs were housed, along with the residents Britney and Carlos Novoa.”
Several recent settlements and judgments against public agencies for dog attacks––all by pit bulls––have run close to $3 million.
Some humane societies and animal control agencies have recently moved to reduce their risk and potential liability in dog attack cases.
Albuquerque chief administrative officer Rob Perry in April 2015 responded to a complaint to the city inspector general that dogs were being rehomed after flunking safety screening by imposing a moratorium on adoptions of dogs who failed the ASPCA-developed SAFER test. Of 64 dogs in the Albuquerque shelters who had failed, 24 were euthanized, while 35 were cleared for adoption, reported Colleen Heild of the Albuquerque Journal on April 20, 2015.
A team assigned by Perry “is also contacting the owners of 98 of 100 dogs identified in the IG complaint as having been adopted over the past year despite failing a nationally standardized behavior test that predicts future aggression,” Heild wrote.
The complaint to the Albuquerque inspector general was filed by city Animal Welfare Department second-in-command Jim Ludwick and former dog behavior specialist Carolyn Hidalgo, who resigned on April 2, 2015 .
Associated Humane Societies
Also in April 2015 the Associated Humane Societies of New Jersey briefly suspended and restructured the volunteer program at the Tinton Falls shelter, one of three that it operates, after repeated incidents involving pit bulls.
“Our number one goal in allowing such programs is safety for animals, volunteers, staff, and public,” the Associated Humane Societies said in a prepared statement.
“The situation at Tinton Falls turned into a recipe for disaster. Had protocol been adhered to as it is at our other two locations, 99% of these incidents could have been prevented,” the statement continued. “Protocol for the volunteers was not followed. A cat was killed when volunteers were testing a dog. A volunteer at an outreach allowed an Associated Humane Societies dog to maul an owned puppy who was gravely wounded. Another of our dogs was bitten in the vaginal area by another dog when two volunteers were walking them. Small dogs have been injured during play groups.”
Volunteers were supposed to have walked dogs only one at a time, Associated Humane Societies president Roseann Trezza told ANIMALS 24-7. “They were not supposed to have playgroups,” Tezza added. “The cat was not supposed to be taken. The [unauthorized test of the dog] was done in a room with a closed door and staff knew nothing about it.”
Former Associated Humane Societies volunteers, some of whom Trezza said had previously resisted observing similar protocols at the Monmouth County SPCA, subsequently picketed the Tinton Falls shelter.
The Elmbrook Humane Society in Brookfield, Wisconsin, meanwhile requested more frequent police patrols of the shelter neighborhood after euthanizing a pit bull named Jim, who had bitten four people and had been at the shelter for 15 months. Jim had developed an extensive Facebook following via volunteers who hoped to find a home for him. Among the Facebook followers were reportedly an individual who responded to Jim’s euthanasia by posting a threat to burn the shelter down.
Austin seeks to hire dog-walkers
A mid-April 2015 city auditor’s report to the Austin, Texas city council may have set up yet another confrontation between volunteers and managers concerned about safety. The auditor’s report found that Austin Animal Services lacks “sufficient facilities and resources allocated to meet the city’s live outcome goal [of 90% live release of impounded animals] and remain in line with state requirements and industry best practices.”
In consequence, the audit found, the Austin Animal Center from October 2013 through August 2014 routinely housed between 32 and 96 more dogs than the actual shelter capacity, while response times in response to aggressive or injured dogs lagged.
The Austin Animal Center responded by asking the city council for funds to hire professional dog-walkers.