Dog bites man. Man sues dog. Dog wins.
The dog was Draco, a prized member of the Gwinnett County Police Department’s K-9 unit. But on July 6, 2013, Draco bit the arm of burglary suspect Randall Kevin Jones, who later claimed the dog clamped down for what “seemed like a lifetime.”
Jones was taken to Gwinnett Medical Center and given stitches for the dog bite before being jailed and charged with burglary and obstruction. Two years later, he filed a highly unusual lawsuit, in that he not only sued the officers involved but also “Officer K-9 Draco of the Gwinnett County Police Department in his individual capacity.”
The lawsuit, alleging excessive use of force, said Draco “viciously mauled” Jones, “tearing his flesh and permanently injuring and disfiguring him, while … officers stood by and failed to intervene.”
When a federal judge rejected Gwinnett’s initial attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, the county appealed. On Friday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta threw out the case against Draco.
“We hold that a dog may not be sued individually for negligence since a dog is not a ‘person,’” Judge Robin Rosenbaum wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. Georgia law, she noted, does not allow such claims to be litigated against dogs.
The mere notion of allowing a lawsuit against a dog raises abundant practical issues, Rosenbaum added. How would you formally serve the lawsuit on a dog? What about the dog’s retention of legal representation? How can a dog be expected to pay damages?
Draco, a Belgian Malinois, retired from the K-9 unit in mid-2014 after seven years on the force, helping officers track down suspects and find stashes of illegal drugs.
In her opinion, Judge Rosenbaum wrote that the dog’s name has long been associated with notorious characters. This includes Draco, the legislator of ancient Greece whose harsh legal code inspired the word “draconian.” Then there’s Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter’s malevolent rival in the popular literary series, the judge noted. Because of what happened to Jones during his arrest, Rosenbaum wrote, “And to the list of infamous Dracos, add defendant-appellant Draco.”
He’s not so infamous, say Draco’s fellow officers.
“He’s an amazing animal,” Gwinnett police spokeswoman Michelle Pihera said. “His K-9 handler thought the world of him.”
The 11th Circuit decision also dismissed Jones’ claims against three police officers at the scene. The court did not address one remaining claim — that the county failed to properly train its police force, which played a role in Jones’ injuries.
Gwinnett’s police department does not comment on ongoing litigation, Pihera said.
Jones, 43, of Flowery Branch, was charged with breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s apartment in Buford and taking her TV, Playstation 3, camera and iPod Touch. The woman said she called police after arriving home and seeing Jones walk off with her TV near the apartments’ pool. An officer who arrived at the scene said he saw Jones jump a fence and head down a ravine near a retention pond, a police report said.
When he didn’t surrender, Jones was warned that Draco would be released, the report said. When Draco eventually found Jones, he bit him on the upper left arm. Police found an iPod Touch, a Wi-Fi adapter and a TV remote in Jones’ pockets and soon located the other missing items, the report said.
In August 2014, Jones pleaded guilty to burglary and obstruction and was sentenced to 10 years on probation and one year in confinement, according to court records.
On Tuesday, Jones said he had returned to his girlfriend’s apartment to pick up items that belonged to him, but he later accepted the plea deal at his attorney’s recommendation.
As for the dog bite, “it was somewhat traumatic,” Jones said. He said he not only needed to get stitches immediately after his arrest, he also needed follow-up surgery later.
Jones said he initially did not know Draco had bitten him, because he hit his head and was knocked unconscious when he fell down the ravine.
“I feel like they should at least pay my medical bills,” he said.
Lawrenceville attorney Debra Kay Jefferson, who represented Jones when he filed suit, acknowledged she was trying to be creative when she named Draco as a defendant.
“We tried to fashion an opportunity where we could stretch the interpretation of the law and represent our client as zealously as possible,” said Jefferson, who has since withdrawn from the case. “He was seriously injured.”
Gwinnett County’s attorneys called the claims against Draco frivolous and noted that “Georgia law routinely treats a dog as the personal property of its owner.”
The 11th Circuit’s ruling dismissed Jones’ excessive-use-of-force claims against three officers at the scene, including Draco’s longtime handler, Scott Fransen. The officers are immune from liability on a number of grounds, one being that Jones failed to allege facts that showed the officers acted with malice toward him, wrote Rosenbaum, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
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