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Sharpsburg man loses suit over death of his dog

June 22, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com

Terry Porter left Washington County District Court on Thursday believing a judge had ruled in his favor in a civil lawsuit against a neighbor whose pit bulls he claimed killed his dog last year.

The neighbor’s attorney thought so, too.

“I’m tickled to death with that,” Porter said after the bench trial in Hagerstown before Judge Mark D. Thomas.

“So I accomplished nothing,” the Sharpsburg man said a few hours later when he learned the judgment was in favor of defendant Denesa Churchey.

“I must have misunderstood,” Porter said.

“I thought the plaintiff had won, but he wasn’t awarded any judgment amount,” Churchey’s attorney, Bernard W. Semler II, said after the trial. “But I think it’s the right verdict,” he said of the recorded judgment in Churchey’s favor.

There are five elements to negligence, and one of them is what harm was done by the defendant’s actions, Semler said. However, Porter had not presented any evidence of financial damages, such as the fair market value of the dog or veterinary bills, he said.

“He didn’t prove damages, so he can’t technically win,” Semler said.

On Friday, Thomas said he found all the elements of negligence in the case, except that Porter failed to show damages, thus he ruled in favor of the defendant.

“I didn’t want her money,” Porter said after the trial on Thursday.

 Thomas had offered to recuse himself before the trial started because he considers pit bulls aggressive animals bred to fight, Semler said.

Thomas reiterated that when making his ruling from the bench.

“I wish you’d get rid of them, Mrs. Churchey. That’s completely gratuitous on my part,” Thomas told her. 

“I see people around Hagerstown with pit bulls and I think, ‘These are not dogs people got for their children,’” Thomas said.

Porter’s black Labrador retriever, Buddy, was killed in February 2011. He filed a lawsuit claiming Churchey knew the dogs were dangerous and did not prevent them from running loose.

Semler argued that Porter’s dog had gotten loose and was off his property, thus Porter was partly negligent. Porter also failed to show the dogs had a history of biting, or that Churchey knew they were dangerous, Semler said.

What did not apply in this case was a controversial April 2012 opinion by the Maryland Court of Appeals that found pit bulls are an “inherently dangerous” breed. As such, owners or landlords who rent to pit bull and pit-crossbreed owners can be found liable for damages for an attack, under the ruling.

But that only applies to cases filed after the ruling, Semler told Thomas.

“It basically puts pit bulls into the category of undomesticated wild animals,” Thomas said before his ruling. Pit bulls “are now assumed to be dangerous,” he said.

Although he ruled in Churchey’s favor, Thomas told Porter he proved his case by a preponderance of the evidence. Unlike a criminal case, which requires a judge or jury to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a judge in a civil case only has to find that the evidence is weighted more to one party than another.

“I believe her dogs killed your dog,” and that Churchey probably knew the dogs’ violent tendencies, Thomas said.

As for Semler’s argument of contributory negligence by Porter because his dog was off his property, Thomas said that was no reason for Churchey’s dogs “to maul your dog.”

In August 2011 the Washington County Humane Society deemed Churchey’s dogs vicious and dangerous based on evidence of the attack on Buddy, and the county’s animal control law, according to a published report in The Herald-Mail.

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