By Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton, Esq./Mediator
Hamilton Law and Mediation, PLLC
On January 29th 2016, in Commerce City, Colorado, dog owner Gary Branson and the city of Commerce City reached a settlement that enabled the parties to avoid an emotional and expensive trial. Mr. Branson’s attorney, Jay Swearingen, filed a lawsuit against Commerce City in federal civil court requesting compensation for seized property under the 4th amendment in the death of Branson’s beloved dog, Chloe. It is the largest settlement, at $262,500.00, to be paid in a lawsuit of this kind in the United States.
The facts as reported in local newspapers and TV are as follows: Commerce City Police Officer Robert Price shot and killed Branson’s dog, Chloe, in November 2012. Branson had left Chloe with a friend in Commerce City and she got loose. Police responded to a report of a loose dog running in the Commerce City neighborhood. Responding officers cornered Chloe in a neighbor’s garage.
Questions arose as to whether Chloe was restrained in a catchpole noose and secure or lunging at police when she was shot 5 times by Officer Price.
Officer Price claimed at his criminal trial that the dog charged toward him in an aggressive manner. Video taken at the time of the incident shows Chloe restrained when she was shot. Despite this video evidence an Adam’s County jury did not find Officer Price guilty of aggravated animal cruelty. According to Branson’s attorney, who is affiliated with the Englewood based Animal Law Center, the videotape “didn’t square” with the officer’s claim or the jury’s finding. This failure to hold anyone responsible for Chloe’s death “prompted them to file a [federal civil] lawsuit against the city,” Swearingen said. Chloe was not a vicious dog and had not attacked anyone in the neighborhood before she was captured. Branson, who is disabled, used Chloe as a therapy dog.
Mr. Branson said in several of his interviews after the settlement that this lawsuit was not about the money. He stated, “No amount of money could replace Chloe.” However, the case was taken to federal court because the lawsuit contends the officer, “deliberately lied,” in a report he wrote about the incident.
Alternatively, it was the perfect case with which to test Colorado’s new law, the Dog Protection Act (DPA). The DPA requires, “police to be trained in dealing with dogs and using non-lethal measures to apprehend these animals.” How was this requirement met by taking the case to federal court? Branson’s attorney stated that most of the settlement money would go to defray attorney’s costs. In addition Commerce City reportedly spent $125,227.00 in legal fees.
In the 21st Century this decision sets another precedent, upholding the intrinsic value of the companion animal in our lives. It provides a new platform on which to bring lawsuits against law enforcement for the wrongful death of our animal companions. It put teeth in the DPA. Or did it? And are they the right teeth?
What else might have been done to avenge Chloe’s death and meet Mr. Branson’s desire for vindication? For animal law practitioners there is only one means of addressing wrongdoing against animals and that is litigation. It is often the only resolution process explored. No one pursues alternative dispute resolution (ADR). ADR may have served Mr. Branson’s need to vindicate Chloe and better train the police.
ADR enables victims and their families to attain more meaningful resolutions than monetary restitution. However, in this case, Mr. Branson’s lawyers likely did not suggest ADR as a means to an end of addressing this gross injustice. They suggested pursuing a federal civil case as the best way to vindicate Chloe and test the new Colorado Dog Protection Act (DPA). By litigating, the Animal Law Center was able to set precedent by settling the matter for $262,500.
Yet, what about what happened in that garage? Who gets to address the actions taken by Police Officer Price? After litigation and a hard fought settlement, who is going to tell/listen to Chloe’s story? Will Mr. Branson get an opportunity to explain his loss in a way Police Officer Price can understand? By litigating this case, a valuable teaching moment was lost in the desire to set precedent. The ability to enable and encourage discussions between victim and offender, fellow officers and pet owners, which could have helped shape future engagements, was lost. The conflict was stolen and a long-term solution lost because the client was advised to climb the courthouse steps rather than allowing a neutral professional to guide a conversation among all interested parties.
Had Branson been given multiple options for resolution he may have chosen to tell Chloe’s story and educate police officers over setting precedent and obtaining money. The police would see the face of the victim and her family. In telling his story he may have set the stage for reactions and processes that would assure real learning and not just monetary compensation.
The Colorado DPA states- “Police be trained in dealing with dogs and using non-lethal measures to apprehend these animals.”
Yet, in this test of the DPA, no one thought to put the language, “police be trained in dealing with dogs and using non-lethal measures to apprehend these animals,” to the test. Had all interested parties heard Mr. Branson’s and Officer Price’s stories, how they felt and what prompted their actions, more meaningful training would have taken place. The discussion could have included community members on both sides of the situation to more fully address what happened here. This kind of mediated discussion and restorative process more broadly meets what was the probable intent of the DPA than setting monetary settlement precedent. No heartfelt interaction or personalization of this event took place.
What could have been learned from this tragedy was lost in litigation.
As is often the case, animal law practitioners like the ones from the Animal Law Center, do not consider mediation and restorative process a teaching tool. It is not regularly applied in animal conflict cases because emotions run so high.
Litigation and monetary settlements are seen as appropriate restitution for the death of a companion like Chloe. For lawyers who fight for animals, it is about setting precedent, not finding a better way to a broader solution.
Ask yourself, would it have been helpful for Mr. Branson to sit down with police officers and talk about Chloe and how he felt? Would the police have benefited from hearing his personal story and then sharing their own? Using ADR enables parties to have this kind of meaningful conversation. Studies show these conversations may, in fact, increase outcome satisfaction for both victim and offender. Such discussions could identify officers who may need retraining, reassignment or removal from responding to animal issues.
A dog was shot and precedent setting litigation was used to vindicate the lost animal. What may have been lost in translation, in litigation, is the opportunity to make lasting one on one personal change between dog owners and police. Yes,
$262,500.00 was awarded thereby affirming that the law works. However, an opportunity to engage in a more far-reaching process solving conversation that could potentially and positively impact future incidents was lost. Taking the time to have a meeting of the minds will spur solutions that save future lives.
Try and remember that it’s about Chloe and not about setting precedents. If we do we may solve bigger problems and find longer lasting solutions. Chloe would not have died in vain! Discussion would have been a part of the solution and not a continuation of the problem.
For more information contact:
Debra Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org 914-273-1085