County Liable in 2008 Dog Mauling

The County of Humboldt will have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars after a jury found it acted negligently in handling a vicious pit bull dog that mauled a veterinary worker in 2008.

While the amount to be received by plaintiff Elena Esquivel, 29, is currently unclear, a civil jury on Friday awarded a total verdict for damages in excess of $548,000, which includes money for past and future medical expenses, pain and suffering and lost wages. However, the jury found Esquivel to be 25 percent responsible in the attack that rendered her left arm permanently damaged, so she will receive a sum around three-quarters of the total award.

Esquivel filed suit in April 2009, alleging that the county acted negligently when it took “Hoddy,” a pit bull terrier that had previously bitten three other people, to the McKinleyville Animal Care Center where Esquivel worked as a receptionist, for a rabies vaccination.

On Sept. 3, 2008, an animal control officer responded to a report that Hoddy -- an un-neutered male -- had bitten his owner's neighbor. The officer realized the dog didn't have a current rabies vaccination and ordered the owner to take him to the county animal shelter in McKinleyville for a 10-day quarantine. At the end of 10 days, the dog was transported by a kennel worker -- not an animal control officer -- to the McKinleyville veterinarian's office to receive the vaccination.

Esquivel's attorney Patrik Griego said he argued the kennel worker was entirely untrained to handle a vicious dog and was also unaware that Hoddy had also bitten two other people -- another neighbor in 2004 and a man at a store in 2007.

”Nobody that was dealing with this dog really knew the extent of its bite history and the circumstances of its previous bites,” he said. “All three people that were bitten said the bites were unprovoked.”

Griego said he argued that despite warnings from Hoddy's owner that he would have to be handled with a catch-pole, the kennel worker, identified in court documents as Tracey Barnwell, used a leash when transporting him from the animal shelter to the veterinarian's office in the back of a county pickup truck with a camper shell on Sept. 15, 2008.

At the veterinarian's office, Esquivel came out to the parking lot to watch a veterinary worker give Hoddy the rabies vaccination in the back of Barnwell's truck while the kennel worker held him by the leash, which she'd wrapped around the dog's snout as a type of muzzle, according to Griego. The vaccination was administered without incident, Griego said, at which point, Barnwell held Hoddy's leash in one hand while attempting to close the truck's camper shell with the other.

While Barnwell was doing this, Griego said his client and the veterinary worker turned to walk back inside the vet's office. Griego said Hoddy then leapt from the back of the truck, dragging Barnwell behind him, and attacked his client, first biting her in the stomach before again lunging at her and biting her left arm, leaving a “de-gloving” injury that stripped skin and tissue from Esquivel's forearm.

The county's attorney Nancy Delaney said she believes Esquivel's actions instigated the attack, a notion she said seems supported by the jury finding Esquivel 25 percent responsible.

”Rather than going directly back into the care center, she was still standing there and walked in front of the dog to go back into the care center, which is what we suggested prompted the dog to jump out of the vehicle,” Delaney said. “It's a dog that's just had a vaccination. It's a dog that's in an uncomfortable situation. One would expect an experienced animal professional to not move in any manner that could provoke the dog. ... For whatever reason, she chose to walk in a direction that could have been perceived as threatening to the dog. The dog could have perceived that it needed to protect the kennel worker like it perceived it needed to protect its owner.”

Hoddy was euthanized shortly after the incident.

The mauling forced Esquivel to undergo a number of surgeries, including one to graft skin from her scalp onto her forearm. Griego said his client will likely have to use patches that slowly administer pain medication to her arm for the rest of her life, and also relies on a compression sleeve to keep swelling at bay. She has nerve damage, he said, that will never go away.

”If she bumps up against anything, she's going to feel pain,” Griego said, adding that Esquivel suffers from Hyperpathia. “She has some areas with no feeling, but the nerves she has that do still have feeling interpret every sensation as pain.”

The jury award includes $150,000 for pain and suffering, $50,000 for that which she will experience in the future, $224,460 for future medical expenses and almost $170,000 for past medical expenses. The last figure is somewhat in dispute, as it amounts to the total amount Esquivel was billed for medical services, not the amount she paid.  Delaney said she expects to see it lowered by the court by as much as $150,000.

Even if the number is reduced, and taking into account Esquivel's 25 percent responsibility, the county will be on the hook to pay the woman more than $300,000 unless other aspects of the verdict are appealed.

Delaney said she has no intention of appealing because the ruling is less than the county reserved for the case.

”I think the jury reached a fair result,” she said, adding that the award is also less than Esquivel was seeking in settlement talks.

The award is also more than the county indicated it was willing to pay in a potential settlement, Griego said.

The attorney said he still hasn't sat down with his client to have a detailed discussion of the award, and consequently couldn't comment on the issue of possible appeals. Griego said he's initially satisfied with the result.

He said Esquivel -- though she has some percentage of permanent disability -- is also looking forward to returning to work.

”She didn't ask the jury for future lost wages, she said, 'Look, I'm going to find a way to get back to work,'” he said, adding that his client will be looking into a different profession when she's prepared to return to the work force. “She has a fear of big dogs now.”

Delaney and Griego stressed that the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office's McKinleyville Animal Shelter has changed its policies since the incident.

Sheriff's Lt. Steve Knight, who used to oversee the shelter, said policy now dictates that veterinarians come to the shelter to treat any dog that's been deemed vicious and that computer systems have been updated to ensure that kennel staff know dogs' full histories when handling them.

”It was a tragic accident,” Knight said. “Policy has changed.”


Thadeus Greenson/The Times-Standard - 8/9/2011.
Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or