Retired police dog chased mail carrier before killing man, mauling woman
EXETER, California––A San Luis Obispo County jury on July 28, 2021 awarded $7 million to Rachel, Sarah, and Steven Fear, the adult survivors of December 2016 dog attack victim David Fear, plus $13.8 million to David Fear’s former neighbor, Betty Long, who was severely injured in the same incident.
David Fear was 64 when he was fatally injured trying to protect Long and her small dog. He died four days later.
Long, then 86, is now 90.
The dog, Neo, a Belgian Malinois, was a retired City of Exeter police dog who escaped from the Grover Beach backyard kennel of then-Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger.
Geiger, a Kings County Sheriff’s deputy in 2012-2013 and then an Exeter Police Department dog handler, beginning in July 2015, bought Neo from the Exeter Police Department upon taking the Grover Beach Police Department job in August 2016.
K9 “should never have been treated as a pet”
“Twelve million dollars of Long’s settlement was for mental suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and emotional distress. The other $1.8 million was for future emotional and physical damages,” KSBY television of San Luis Obispo reported.
“The lawsuit in part claimed that the dog involved in the attack, Neo, should never have been treated as a pet, could not be untrained as a police K9, and should have always been kept in a kennel unless under direct control of Geiger,” KSBY continued,
Earlier $500,000 settlement
The lawsuit by David Fear’s adult children and Betty Long was initially filed against Alex Geiger personally, the City of Grover Beach, the Grover Beach Police Department, the Exeter Police Department, and Christopher and Monica Belavic, the owners of Geiger’s rented home.
The Belavics’ insurance company reportedly settled their part of the lawsuit for $500,000 in August 2018, split three ways among Fears’ adult children, Long, and the attorneys who represented them.
The City of Grover Beach and Grover Beach Police Department were removed from the case in 2019, since Geiger did not have custody of Neo in connection with his Grover Beach police duties.
First U.S. fatality by Belgian Malinois
David Fear was the first known U.S. fatality involving a Belgian Malinois, a breed closely related to and resembling a German shepherd, often used for police and military work.
There have been two other fatal Belgian Malinois attacks since then, one each in 2019 and 2020, both on children.
Geiger was also criminally charged for the attacks on David Fear and Betty Long, but was on April 12, 2019 acquitted of involuntary manslaughter and failure to maintain a large animal causing serious bodily injury and death, despite testimony that Neo had already escaped from Geiger’s enclosure once that day to chased a mail carrier.
Geiger testified that he had returned home and fixed his wood-and-lattice fence, but Neo then escaped again.
Geiger had Neo euthanized after David Fear, 64, was mauled, while trying to protect Long and her own small dog. Fear and Long were talking on the sidewalk when Neo charged them.
“Get out of jail free”
Commented California dog bite attorney Kenneth Phillips immediately after the acquittal in the criminal trial, “The worst part about this ‘not guilty’ verdict is the ‘get out of jail free’ message. The defense was largely based on the absence of standard guidelines that would dictate how to protect the public from police dogs that are out of training.
“The defense used that argument to its advantage to get this particular defendant found not guilty, but the long term effect of the jury’s decision will create the missing guideline,” Phillips predicted. “Freedom from criminal responsibility means less of a need to be vigilant. The guideline will admit more casual confinement of these dogs. Public safety will suffer.”
The two subsequent Malinois fatalities and several other deaths and disfigurements from other dogs either in training for police work and guarding, or retired after police use, underscore Phillips’ point.
“Sheer folly to go to trial”
Observed Phillips of the $20 million jury verdict, “It was sheer folly for the City of Exeter to take this case to trial — they should have paid a few million,” as did the homeowners’ insurance company, “instead of rolling the dice and losing fifteen million. They were gambling that a jury of ordinary people would side with the government at a time when so many Americans are angry at our public officials and particularly our police and animal control departments.
“Did the City of Exeter believe it would get off because the officer who took this so-called ‘retired’ police canine was found not guilty?” Phillips speculated to ANIMALS 24-7.
“Look how that worked out for O. J. Simpson! The ‘not guilty’ verdict at his criminal trial was quickly followed by a $33 million judgment at his civil case. That’s what Exeter was risking here. They should consider themselves lucky at getting tapped for just half that amount.
“Don’t forget the big picture,” Phillips continued. “We rely on our police and animal control departments to protect our neighborhoods from vicious dogs. When public servants put vicious dogs into our homes, they endanger us. The weakest among us, such as this 90-year-old plaintiff, are the ones who are put at the greatest risk, despite being the ones who should receive the most protection.
“Civil cases totally necessary to send a message”
“It is infuriating to see this happen again and again,” Phillips said, “and therefore these civil cases are totally necessary to send a message to animal control officials, police departments and lawmakers that putting human lives at risk for the purpose of saving a vicious dog is intolerable.”
Phillips mentioned that, “Yesterday I filed a big case against the City of Los Angeles following a shelter dog’s brutal mailing of a 70-year-old woman whose arm had to be amputated. I predict the City of Los Angeles will rather tangle with me than admit fault, and I am prepared to turn them upside down and inside out for their repeated horrible mistakes. This is the price they will always have to pay for treating our neighbors worse than dogs.”
Local precedent, if not specifically in Los Angeles city courts, appears to favor Phillips.
Los Angeles County payouts
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on September 17, 2019 agreed to pay $3 million to the family of Armando Garcia, 17, killed by an accidental ricochet on June 22, 2017 when two sheriff’s deputies shot at a 73-pound pit bull who had already bitten a third deputy and according to the incident report was again charging them.
The issue was not that the sheriff’s deputies shot at the pit bull, but rather that they shot without ensuring that they had a safe line of fire.
The $3 million Los Angeles County payout for the Armando Garcia death was nearly triple the $1.1 million that the county agreed less than two weeks earlier to pay to survivors of Pamela Devitt, 63, killed by four pit bulls on May 9, 2013.
Walking for exercise
Unlike Garcia, whose loud music occasioned the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department to visit his home in the first place, Devitt was merely walking for exercise when fatally mauled by four pit bulls who had often run at large for as long as eight years, despite repeated complaints from neighbors about dangerous behavior.
The owner of the pit bulls who killed Devitt, Alex Donald Jackson, was in 2014 convicted of second degree murder for allowing them to run at large, and is now serving 15 years to life in state prison.
Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control was successfully sued by Devitt’s husband and two adult children for contributing to Devitt’s death by repeatedly failing to impound the pit bulls.
Best Friends payout for Los Angeles attack
Los Angeles City Watch blogger Phyllis M. Daugherty on July 19, 2021 reported that the Best Friends Animal Society had in 2020 quietly settled a Los Angeles Superior Court case for an undisclosed sum, after Best Friends in 2016 rehomed a pit bull named Bleu who had been “pulled” from a Los Angeles Animal Services shelter, despite previous bite history.
Bleu, Daugherty wrote, was “adopted to a family as ‘good with children.’
“’One week later,’ according to the documents,” Daugherty said, “the dog, without warning or provocation,” charged and facially mauled a 13-year-old girl, “who was in the family’s living room doing her homework.”
Continued Daugherty, “The complaint stated that, ‘Defendant Best Friends Animal Society did not inform Plaintiffs the dog was a pit bull mix,’” instead identifying the dog on adoption papers as an ‘Australian cattle dog mix,’ “’nor did they warn Plaintiffs of its dangerous propensities.”
Motions to suppress evidence
The complaint added, Daugherty said, that “Following the attack, the dog was taken to Pasadena Humane Society and released back to the Best Friends Animal Society, which put the dog up for adoption again,” again without warning potential adopters that the dog had a history of dangerous behavior.
Daugherty noted that the Best Friends Animal Society introduced motions to preclude “evidence, argument and testimony of any alleged subsequent bite history,” to preclude “any alleged history of Defendants adopting out dangerous animals,” and to preclude “any reference to the subject dog as a ‘Pitbull / Pitbull Mix, and all argument, suggestion, and testimony that the breed is itself indicative of any dangerous character.’”
Without access to the complete legal history of the case, observers may only surmise that Best Friends would not have offered a settlement if any or all of those motions had been accepted by the court.