Saturday, September 28, 2013

Pit Bull Mediation Case

Pit Bull Mediation Case
I recently mediated a “classic” pit bull bites child case.  Just for full disclosure, besides being a mediator / lawyer, I am also certified in therapeutic dog massage and have a great love and affinity for all dogs. I also think that responsible dog ownership is the obligation of the owner. It has been years since I overcame the cultural conditioning of being afraid of pit bulls. However, I do understand how pit bulls are portrayed in the culture and the effect that can have.
The background: The plaintiff is a mother who lives across the street from the defendants, a young couple who have two pit bulls. At the time of the incident, two years ago, the couple (defendants) was expecting their first child. Until that moment, the pit bulls had never caused any problems and were well loved and socialized dogs with children and other dogs. On the day of the incident, the plaintiff (mother) was away and her brother (child’s uncle) was taking care of her 4 year old. The pit bulls had met the child many times before with no incident. The uncle was playing next to the pit bull’s home and tossing the child around and the child was having fun making lots of noise. The pit bulls got out of their yard (there was no fence enclosure) and ran toward the child and uncle. The uncle lifted the child away from the pit bulls who jumped up and bit the child on his side. (Were they trying to “protect” the child and get him away from the uncle? - who can say).There was lots blood and the child was taken to the hospital. The wound healed and there was no permanent damage.
The plaintiff hired a local attorney who brought an action against the defendants but the lawsuit simply lingered. Two years passed. The lawyer had instructed the plaintiff not to speak with the defendant so the many phone calls from the defendant were not answered. The plaintiff eventually moved from that house (not because of the dogs) but carried a lingering anger and frustration that the matter had not been resolved to her satisfaction. There were some expenses for the hospital $500 but half of that was covered by insurance.
The case - I was volunteering as a co-mediator for a community based program in Massachusetts and this case came to small claims court. In small claims, the dollar limit for recovery is $7,000. The plaintiff sued for $6,000 which included medical bills and pain and suffering. She explained the story, told the defendants that she wanted this resolved so that “she could put it to rest.”
Now it was the defendant’s turn. She began her story and immediately broke down in tears. She too had been carrying this for two years and was so upset that her dogs had injured a child. She was pregnant when this happened and just the thought that this could happen to her baby was very real to her. She had wanted to make amends from the very beginning. In fact, she had gone to the hospital to see if the child was OK. After all this was her neighbor. She apologized for not having a better fence which she had put in the next week after the incident. This turned out to be the only incident that ever occurred with her dogs either before or after.
The plaintiff was deeply touched and also began crying. Both plaintiff and defendant met on common and deeply shared grounds of motherhood and protection and care for children. This case, like many others that come to court, are not “exclusively” about the money as much as the hurt. I have seen that when the emotional issue gets addressed, the money resolution naturally follows.
In this case, the defendants did not have a lot of money and the plaintiff could understand that. The actual out of pocket cost to the plaintiff was $250 and the defendant offered $600. “Will that be enough”, the defendant asked. “That will do” said the plaintiff. And so the case was resolved.
A few comments: Mediation sometimes has an almost magical ability to help parties resolve issues that could not be resolved through litigation. Even if through litigation the defendant was ordered to pay $600, it would not have been the same emotional resolution as offered in this case. The typical pit bull issue was raised in the conversation, mostly by the husbands. One said that pit bulls were bad and dangerous and the other that they were fine if socialized properly. Fortunately, the men were mostly in the background and the powerful emotions of motherhood won the day for both parties.

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