Persistence and Staying Focused on the Facts Leads to Unanimous Defense Verdict

SFE Attorney: Cliff J. Wilson

Plaintiff Attorney: Gregory Kafoury, Jason Kafoury, Mark McDougal

City, Co., State: Multnomah County Circuit Court, Oregon

Claims Alleged: Personal Injury

Injuries Alleged: Injury to face and eye from dog bite

Admitted Liability: No

Amount Claimed: $777,508.00

The Overview

This case involved a gnarly dog bite to the face that put plaintiff in the hospital requiring multiple surgeries. Fortunately for us, plaintiff’s claims all revolved around “ownership” of the dog, which attorney Cliff Wilson successfully disproved. Cliff’s experience and expertise as a veteran trial attorney lead him to convince the jury that defendant had no way of  knowing the dog had any aggressive tendencies, mostly because the dog had only been in defendant’s home for 10 days at the time of the incident. This won the jury over and Cliff was able to obtain a full defense verdict.

The Background

Defendant took in a stray dog, which happened to be a “pit bull” mix, off the streets on a snowy winter day in January. Defendant contacted the humane society but was told they don’t take in strays. Pursuant to directions on the animal shelter’s website, she tried to find the owner herself before she brought the dog into the shelter. Defendant posted lost dog notices and announcements on Facebook and other websites. During her time with the dog, it was friendly and exhibited no aggressive behavior to anyone. 10 days after she found it, plaintiff came to defendant’s home to pick up defendant’s daughter for a date.  Plaintiff entered the home, walked up the stairs, approached the dog, knelt down with his face in close proximity to the dog, rubbed the dog’s ears, and said something to the effect of “good doggy.” In that instant, the dog bit plaintiff on the left side of his face, and ran away. The bite caused lacerations to plaintiff’s left eye lid, tear duct and lip. The injuries required reconstruction of plaintiff’s tear duct and required alleged lifetime future care of the duct. Plaintiff sued defendant for animal negligence, alleging personal injuries and seeking over $800,000 in damages.

Plaintiff’s Theme

Plaintiffs attempted to present this case as a classic failure to warn and protect situation. In an attempt to invoke sympathy from the jury, plaintiff stated he was attacked unprovoked and that the dog “lashed out like a viper.” A photo of plaintiff’s injury to his eye was a great tool in favor of plaintiff’s case, as it was quite gruesome looking. At trial, counsel for plaintiff aggressively attempted to attack defendant’s credibility using inaccuracies contained in a form she filled out after dropping the dog off at the shelter the day after the incident. It was also plaintiff’s strategy to convince the jury of the dog’s “inherent” dangerousness, given it was a pit bull mixed breed.

Our Strategy

Smith Freed Eberhard partner, Cliff Wilson and his team were asked to represent the defendant.  Under Oregon law, in order to be held liable, a possessor of an animal must have known or had reason to know of the dog’s dangerous propensities and that it would bite if not controlled or confined.  Cliff’s conversation with the defendant and careful investigation of the case made it clear that defendant had no way of knowing that the dog had any dangerous propensities or had ever exhibited aggression toward anyone.  In fact, the dog had interacted with multiple people in the ten days that it was in defendant’s home, showing no aggressive tendencies.

Cliff asked the court for summary judgment, arguing that defendant had no possible way of knowing that the dog was likely to bite a visitor. Plaintiff’s counsel identified a visitor that previously came to defendants home and did not want to pet the dog when invited to do so. The court denied Cliff’s motion, finding that the visitor’s refusal to go up the stairs and pet the dog could be construed as evidence that the dog had exhibited aggressive tendencies toward him.

Cliff’s strategy for trial was to focus on the facts, primarily, defendant’s lack of knowledge of the dog’s history. Plaintiff’s counsel was Gregory Kafoury, a prominent Oregon personal injury attorney known for pursuing big verdicts. Mr. Kafoury took an aggressive strategy of attacking defendant’s credibility based on inaccuracies on a form she filled out when she dropped the dog off at the animal shelter the day after the bite incident. Plaintiff’s attorney was also very set on identifying the “inherent” dangerousness of pit bull mixed dog breeds, and drew on popular media bias and common public misconceptions about this breed of dogs. Cliff cut through the smoke and mirrors with the assistance of a dog behavior expert, and focused the jury on the actual facts of the case. 

The Outcome

Cliff’s persistence, strategy, and preparation for trial paid off.  Following deliberation, the jury returned with a unanimous verdict in favor of defendant.  In the end, it was clear that the jury focused on the facts and that despite the severity of the injuries and the plaintiff’s attempts to characterize the dog as inherently dangerous based on its breed, the plaintiff had simply offered no evidence that would show the defendant had any knowledge or should have had any knowledge that the friendly dog would bite him.

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