Verdict in pitbull attack on Gig Harbor woman upheld

Staff writerAugust 13, 2013 

The Washington State Court of Appeals has upheld a Pierce County jury’s verdict that awarded $2.2 million in damages to a Gig Harbor woman who was mauled by her neighbors’ pit bulls nearly six years ago.

Pierce County and Sue Gorman, who suffered numerous injuries in the attack, had appealed the 2011 verdict.

The county, which was found 42 percent at fault for the mauling, argued it should not be held accountable at all despite contentions its animal-control officers did not do enough to rein in one of the dogs after prior complaints.

Its attorneys argued at trial and on appeal that the county had no duty to act on those complaints.

Gorman argued on appeal that she, too, should be absolved of all responsibility in the incident as she was in her home minding her own business when attacked. The jury found her 1 percent at fault.

In a split decision issued Tuesday, an appellate panel for Division II upheld the verdict, which assigned the remaining 57 percent responsibility for the attack to the owners of the dogs – Betty and Tank – that mauled Gorman.

Justices Joel Penoyar and Marywave Van Deren decided the county, despite its arguments to the contrary, had a duty to initiate a process to determine whether one of the dogs that attacked Gorman was potentially dangerous after receiving numerous complaints about it.

Gorman’s attorney, Mike McKasy, argued at trial that the dog, Betty, would have been locked up had the county initiated that process.

“If the county was made aware of a likely potentially dangerous dog, it had a duty to evaluate the dog to determine if it was potentially dangerous,” Penoyar wrote in the majority opinion.

But the majority did not let Gorman off the hook.

Penoyar wrote that although he and Van Deren were “sympathetic to Gorman’s argument” that she bore no responsibility, the jury was right to find her partially at fault, pointing out she left a sliding-glass door into her home open despite knowing Betty and the other dog, Tank, were known to run loose in the neighborhood.

The pit bulls entered Gorman’s house through the open door on Aug. 21, 2007, killed one of her dogs and then attacked her when she intervened. She was bitten multiple times, her wounds requiring several surgeries.

Justice Lisa Worswick dissented from the majority opinion where the county was concerned.

“Read in its entirety with each word placed in context, the ordinance clearly authorized – but did not require – the county or its designee to classify potentially dangerous dogs,” Worswick wrote.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 adam.lynn@ thenewstribune.com @TNTadam

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