The $72 million jury award to the family of a young girl mauled by two pit bulls sends a statement that owners must get better control of their dangerous pets. But the decision isn’t likely to prove a financial windfall for the family.
A DeKalb County State Court jury deliberated for only 45 minutes in the case of Erin Ingram who was 8 when two pit bulls attacked her in front of her Lithonia home in 2010.
“This is pure negligence that happened, so the message that needed to go out was control your dog,” Erin’s father, Tommie Ingram, told Channel 2 Action News. “It was a great message and the verdict was perfect. I’m not going to be a millionaire.”
Kevin Adamson, an attorney for the family concurred. “While it’s large enough to make one sit up and take notice, it is ultimately a symbolic victory for the Ingram family. This verdict, we hope, sends an important message to those who allow their dogs to roam free and fail to protect others.”
The award itself may not be collectible. The dogs’ owner, Twyann Vaughn, did not have insurance, said attorney Alan Cleveland, who also represented the Ingrams. Insurance is typically the prime collection source in such cases, although personal assets can also be tapped.
The initial jury award was more than $72 million _ $36.7 million in compensatory damages and $36 million in punitive damages. But the punitive damages were reduced to $250,000.
“We tried the case knowing there might not be a lot of recovery for the (Ingram) family,” Cleveland said. The case, he said, “is about justice.”
According to a press release issued by Adamson and Cleveland, Erin, a third grader, came home from school on the day of the attack and didn’t have any homework. So she asked her father if she could play basketball in her own driveway. As she did, two large pit bulls came into her yard and attacked her.
“They were biting me on my arms and on my ankles,” the attorneys said Erin told the jury. “I was screaming for help.”
The jury heard a 911 tape of part of the incident.
Several neighborhood children said the same dogs that attacked Erin had bit them before. But on March 9, 2010, they were loose and attacked Erin.
A surgeon had to remove part of one of her arms, and her other arm is disfigured. Her ankles are also scarred from the attack.
Vaughn apologized to the family.
“I’m just very, very sorry that it all happened and I just want to express that to the family,” Vaughn said in 2010. “I hope Erin’s doing well. I really do.”
The attorneys said in a statement that the dogs dragged Erin from her driveway into the street. A woman drove up on the scene and saw her lying in the road and thought Erin had been hit by a car, they said. But then she saw the dogs tearing at Erin’s arms.
The woman called 911 while the dogs continued attacking her and Erin cried for help and called out for her mother.
When DeKalb police Sgt. R.B. Peeler arrived at the scene, he found the dogs still hadn’t released Erin, and so he didn’t want to discharge his gun, the attorneys said.
So, he used his baton to hit the larger dog in the head. The dog didn’t move, but Peeler stood over Erin and fought off the dogs to separate them.
One dog jumped at Peeler and he shot it. The other, a pit bull mix, was later captured and euthanized.
At the hospital, doctors spent 18 hours trying to save Erin’s arms. They used veins from her legs to save her right arm, but the left arm had to be amputated just below her elbow. She wears a prosthetic and has endured many surgeries and physical therapy. She will need more surgeries, the attorneys said.
In 2012, nearly two years after two pit bulls attacked her, Erin told a jury she still had nightmares.
“It’s like my other arm is getting bitten off by other animals,” she said. “It’s like it happens again.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.