Holding a Southern California County Accountable in Dog Bite Cases
July 28, 2017
As an experienced San Diego dog bite attorney, it is not uncommon to hear of litigation in instances in which people sustain injuries as a result of a dog or another animal biting them. Most times, the injured party will file a lawsuit against the owner of the dog or another person tasked with caring for the animal. Less common, however, is the nature of the claims found in a recent case, in which the representatives of a woman who was killed by several dogs pursued various claims against the local governmental agency tasked with animal control issues.
The lawsuit arose out of a situation in which a woman was fatally attacked by several pit bull dogs in Los Angeles County in May 2013. The owner of the dogs was convicted of second-degree murder as a result of the attack. When the lawsuit was initially pursued against the defendant, herein designated as the “Department,” the plaintiffs were apparently told that there was nothing the Department could have done differently to prevent the attack. Over time, however, the plaintiffs were contacted by a former employee/whistleblower, and additional subsequent evidence was purportedly uncovered that suggested the Department had been called in regard to the dogs involved in the attack on several occasions — on at least seven occasions in the 18 months preceding the attack alone.
As early as June 2005, and again in January 2006, the Department received complaints that a pack of pit bulls was running “at large,” attacking livestock, pets, and people — reportedly having escaped from the owner’s property. The Department did not impound the dogs at that time, as required by the County code. This was even though the Department reportedly observed that the owner was keeping more than three dogs, which according to County law necessitated a kennel license.
In January 2013, local law enforcement and the Department responded to a complaint that at least eight dogs originating from the owner’s property were attacking people and horses. The Department noted that there were three large pit bulls but still did not enforce licensing requirements or impound the dogs.
In April 2013, the Department was again told that six to eight dogs from the owner’s property were running at large and had attacked a horse and its rider. Despite seeing the victims of the attack, the Department reportedly still did not enforce the relevant laws or impound the animals. Following a notice posted on the owner’s property regarding a citation for unlicensed dogs, the owner called, stating that he did not own any dogs and that any dogs observed on his property were strays. The Department did not impound the dogs following the receipt of that information.
According to the opinion, it was later revealed that the Department also received several complaints regarding the same dogs, to which it never responded. Employees from a shelter complained in person and in writing to Department management and the Board of Supervisors, related to the Department failing to enforce processes and procedures that would have resulted in the dogs being impounded and otherwise failing to properly respond to complaints from the public seeking protection from the dogs running at large and attacking people and animals in the area. The Department did not impound the dogs following these complaints.
At trial, evidence was presented of seven additional altercations involving the dogs that were reported to the Department in the 18 months preceding the victim’s death.
The Department alleged that it was immune from liability because the relevant law it was tasked to enforce was discretionary, and therefore it did not owe any duty to the victim or her legal representatives. The trial court sided with the Department.
On appeal, the court looked at the nature of the duty the Department had to impound dogs. It found that the plain language of LACC section 10.12.090 indicated that the Department had a mandatory duty to “capture and take into custody” “[a]ll unlicensed dogs,” “[d]ogs . . . running at large,” and “stray . . . animals.” (LACC § 10.12.090, subds. (A), (D), (E).)
The court distinguished a similar case in which several dogs attacked a group of children. In that case, the statute in question asked whether any animal that “constitute[s] or cause[s] a hazard, or [is] a menace to the health, peace or safety of the community.” The standard there, whether an animal constituted a hazard or menace, was subjective and therefore open to interpretation with regard to the duty to capture.
As related above, the Department had received reports that the dogs were running at large, which resulted in its citing the owner for having unlicensed dogs, and the owner had responded that the dogs were strays. Thus, the dogs fell within at least one of several categories of dogs that “shall” be impounded, and the action was no longer discretionary. “Therefore, under the circumstances alleged in the first amended complaint, and pursuant to the statute as it was written at the time of [victim’s] death, the duty to take the dogs into custody was mandatory.”
The judgment was thus reversed, and the court gave extensive instructions regarding the disposition of the various claims and procedural issues.
If you or a loved one has been bitten or attacked by a dog, the Carlsbad personal injury attorneys at the Rubinstein Law Group can help you through this difficult time. We can assemble a team of experts to investigate your injury and build a strong case on your behalf. Mr. Rubinstein has developed a strong track record of success, helping many of his clients earn lucrative verdicts and settlements. This experience will give you the edge you need when seeking to maximize the value of your compensation.