Washington Small-firm lawyer wins $2.2M verdict for pitbull attack Woman was mauled by two neighborhood pitbulls that burst into her home

By Sylvia Hsieh

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON, MA -- A small-firm lawyer won a $2.2 million verdict on behalf of a woman attacked in her bedroom by two neighborhood pitbulls in her rural home outside Tacoma, Wash.

The winning attorney, Michael McKasy, sued not only the owners of the two dogs, whose homeowner's policies are limited to $100,000 each, but also the county for failing to declare the dogs a potential danger under a local ordinance.

Among the evidence McKasy offered during the three-week trial were previous complaints about the dogs from neighbors, including the victim herself.

"After this final attack, the county pressed criminal charges against the owner for harboring a vicious animal. Then we file a civil suit and they take the contrary position that this dog did not have to be found dangerous. It was totally inconsistent, and I think the jury read through that," said McKasy, a partner in the five-lawyer firm Troup, Christnacht, Ladenburg, McKasy & Durkin Inc. in Tacoma.

Ronald L. Williams, deputy prosecuting attorney for Pierce County, who represented the county at trial, said that some of the complaints introduced at trial over his objection were made to the humane society before the county took over animal control.

The county is appealing the verdict.

Because of one of the jury's findings, the county will not be jointly and severally liable for the entire verdict, but is on the hook for almost $1 million.

Lawyers for the dog owners declined to comment for this article.

'Like your worst nightmare'

Sue Gorman had a habit of curling up with her dog, Misty, and leaving the doggie door open for a neighbor's Jack Russell terrier to join them.

The 59-year-old woman lived alone with Misty, a Sheltie service dog she needed for a seizure condition and a medical condition that disrupts her circadian rhythm.

One morning around 8 o'clock, two pitbulls barreled through the doggie door and went on a 20-minute rampage, attacking Gorman and the two dogs.

During the attack, Gorman tried fighting them off with a walking stick and even tried to shoot them with a pistol she kept in her nightstand, but it jammed. One of the pitbulls pinned her against the wall, biting her breast, face, forehead and nose before turning to attack one of the dogs. In that instant, Gorman bolted out of the room and called the police. Gorman's dog survived, but the Jack Russell terrier was killed.

"It was like your worst nightmare," said McKasy, who added that his client underwent two surgeries and required 27 stitches to her face, and has scarring on her hands and breasts.

At trial, several neighbors testified that they had complained about the dogs and their owners' neglect. One neighbor said he had tried to shoot one of the pitbulls with a BB gun, and when the police responded to his complaints they told him to shoot the dog the next time. Another neighbor said that the owners had a history of neglecting dogs they owned, failing to give them food or water.

And the most credible complaint, according to McKasy, came from a curly-haired 10-year-old boy who said both dogs tried to bite him while he was on his roller-blades.

The plaintiff herself had complained to police about the pitbulls twice, to no avail. Once when they tried to get through a sliding glass window, she took a photo of the pitbulls lunging against the window with teeth bared. That photo was later shown to the jury.

But according to Williams, the county attorney, only four of the 14 complaints involved the same pitbulls involved in the attack, and most of the complaints were made before the county took over animal control responsibilities.

Williams argued that the ordinance was dog-specific and the county did everything it could, but none of the neighbors was willing to sign a statement, which is required for declaring an animal potentially dangerous.

'Bad owners have bad dogs'

Based on jury research, McKasy pressed his trial theme that "bad owners have bad dogs."

"Our research showed that two-thirds of people think pitbulls are horrible and the other one-third think they're okay unless they have a bad owner and are not cared for. Our theme that bad owners have bad dogs created a no-lose situation: Either you think pitbulls are terrible animals or had terrible owners," said McKasy of the jury made up mostly of dog owners.

He also said he did not think that the jury, or at least the six women on the 12-member panel, took to the defense's attempt to downplay Gorman's scars on her breasts as invisible.

In closings arguments, McKasy used a David Ball technique of asking the jury to look back to the day before the accident.

"If I went to Sue the day before and told her she was going to have a pitbull attack her face and damage her nose to the extent that it would be crooked every time she looked in the mirror, what could I pay her to let me do that?" he asked the jury.

McKasy also told the jury that any finding of negligence on his client's part would be "devastating," although he could not tell them that such a finding would preclude joint and several liability.

The jury came back with a verdict compensating Gorman for $100,000 in medical bills and awarding $2.1 million for pain and suffering.

It found the county 42 percent liable, the owner of the older pitbull 52 percent liable and the other owner 5 percent responsible.

The jury also found the plaintiff one percent at fault. It may have been a token, but the finding means that the plaintiff cannot collect jointly and severally against the county.

After the verdict, the jury's first question to McKasy was the impact of the one percent liability.

"The one percent cost my client $1 million," he said. "If they had found zero contributory negligence, we could have collected $2.2 million from the county."

In light of the appeal, McKasy said he will ask that the finding of contributory negligence be struck.

Published: Tue, Aug 30, 2011