Stephen Elliott and Howard "Rusty" Fox Raise Awareness
Stephen, his partner Rusty, their dog Vargas and Stephen's finger.
Video: Neighborhood Council Meeting
Studio City, CA - Pit bull attack victims, Stephen Elliott and Rusty Fox, continue to try to work with City of Los Angeles officials to address the growing public safety problem posed by pit bulls and other dangerous dogs. Writer Mike Szymanski recently published an account of the violent attack that occurred on Ventura Boulevard on February 16. As a result of the attack, Stephen had part of his finger bitten off as he tried in vain to save his dog Vargas from the jaws of a loose pit bull.
"This was the worst experience of my life. I don’t want this to happen to anyone ever again, and we want to educate people about these dangers." - Stephen Elliott
The below is a recent letter to Studio City Field Deputy, Courtney Hamilton, who works in the North Hollywood Field Office of Councilman Paul Krekorian. Stephen's letter painstakingly details how appallingly victims of dog attacks are treated by the system afterward -- this case specifically involves a dog-on-dog attack resulting in serious injury to the person and the death of their pet -- and how the system fails to hold the owner of the dog and its animal accountable in any way.
Discussion notes by DogsBite about the highlighted portions are located at the end of this post.
Dear Ms. Hamilton,
It was a pleasure meeting you and Councilman Krekorian at the Studio City Neighborhood Council meeting on Wednesday evening. First let me apologize for the ambush at the door, but we were eager to make the City Council aware of the safety issue around pit bulls and have been unsuccessful at finding a responsive channel. As I promised, below is a summary of our experiences and an outline of what we are hoping to accomplish in terms of advancing public safety.
On Sunday, February 16, 2014, at around 12:30 PM, we were walking Vargas, our 6-and-a-half month old Yorkie, on the 12000 Block of Ventura Blvd. As we approached the Big Sugar Bakery (12182 Ventura Blvd.), a pit bull came bounding out of Lush Shoes (12188 Ventura Blvd.) and attacked Vargas. This attack was totally without provocation and occurred without any warning. The pit bull exhibited a strong fighting instinct and in our attempts to rescue Vargas, my partner Howard (aka "Rusty"), who was 5-and-a-half weeks post-surgical from an extensive spine surgery, was knocked down onto the street curb, and I had part of my right middle finger bitten off. Vargas' injuries were extensive and exploratory surgery determined that his condition necessitated that he be put down. Although we did recover the severed portion of my finger, the attempt to graft it back on failed and I had to have a formal amputation and finger shortening surgery on March 5th.
The police were called, but by the time they arrived we were on our way to The Studio City Animal Hospital. Immediately upon delivering Vargas to the hospital, I went to the ER at St. Joseph's Hospital; Rusty remained with Vargas. Rusty spoke briefly with the Police and Animal Services by phone. A report was filed by Animal Services. To date, we have not been able to secure a copy of this report, nor have we been able to ascertain any information about a hearing to determine the fate of the attacking pit bull. What we do know is that after a 10 day quarantine in the owner's apartment, the dog is now free to go back out into public spaces. A bystander/witness reported to the police that the pit bull had been muzzled a few minutes prior to attacking Vargas, and had, in fact lunged at another dog in front of Starbucks. We were told that the muzzle was removed at the request of the shoe store owner, as she wanted to play with the pit bull.1
Despite the fact that she was in violation of several City/County ordinances, the owner of the pit bull has not been issued any citations. Also, the owner of the pit bull has no form of liability insurance and has made no effort to reimburse us any of our expenses (which currently total almost $10,000.00). I mention the lack of financial resources and a sense of responsibility not because we are looking for assistance in recouping our expenses, but because it serves to demonstrate that there are deficiencies in current laws regarding the ownership of [dangerous] animals.
Deficiencies in Current Laws and Law Enforcement:
- The Los Angeles Leash Law states that any dog taken off of the owner's premises must "be restrained by a substantial chain or leash not exceeding 6 feet in length" and be in the control of a competent person when off property. (LAMC 53.06.2) The dog that attacked and killed Vargas was not in the control of a competent person, as evidenced by the fact she let the dog loose in a store and removed the muzzle (if she muzzled the dog, she must have felt there was a need). The owner was not cited for violation of the Leash Law.
- The Leash Law addresses "Infraction/misdemeanor penalty for dog bites" and states that "in addition to the conditions and restrictions imposed on the ownership of potentially dangerous and vicious dogs set forth in this chapter, an owner or custodian of a dog who permits, allows or causes a dog to run, stray or be uncontrolled or at large upon a public street, sidewalk, park or other public property, or in the private property of another person, is guilty of a public offense punishable as an infraction or misdemeanor if such dog bites, attacks or causes injury to any person or to a domestic animal." (LAMC 10.37.180) The owner was not cited for an infraction/misdemeanor penalty for dog bites.
- The Leash law states that a leash cannot exceed 6 feet in length, yet 25 feet retractable leashes can be purchased in local stores.
- We have witnessed a pit bull in an enclosed sidewalk café (Mexicali Cocina Cantina, 12161 Ventura Blvd.) on Sunday, 04/06/14. This dog was not restrained by the owner, which is in direct violation of the leash law ("the owner must have control of the dog at all times").
- Sidewalk adoptions of pit bulls run by Kinder4Rescue in front of CVS Pharmacy (12143 Ventura Blvd.) pedestrians are not warned that they are walking in an area where there may be a potentially dangerous dog; these dogs are frequently taken out of their cages for potential adopters to handle.
- There are no laws requiring that the owner of a dog which has been defined as being either "Potentially Dangerous" or "Vicious" carries any form of liability insurance.
Problems We Have Encountered:2
- The pit bull that attacked us meets the definition of a Potentially Dangerous Dog (LAMC 10.37.020) sets forth that "any dog which, when unprovoked, has killed, seriously bitten, inflicted injury, or otherwise caused injury to a domestic animal off the property of the owner or custodian of the dog" meets the criteria of being labeled "potentially dangerous." In fact, the attacking dog meets the criteria of being defined as a Vicious Dog. LAMC 10.37.030 states that "any dog which, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner, inflicts severe injury on or kills a person" is defined as vicious. Severe injury is defined in LAMC 10.37.040 as "any physical injury to a human being that results in a major fracture, muscle tears or disfiguring lacerations or requires multiple sutures or corrective or cosmetic surgery."
On two occasions, we have been told by City Officials (an Animal Services Officer and by the Deputy Chief of Staff of Councilman Koretz) that my finger having been severed by the pit bull would not carry much, if any weight, in a hearing to determine the labeling and/or fate of the dog that attacked us. Not only does this information that we were given not follow the law as set forth in the LAMC referenced above, but it also is in direct contradiction to the "rescue doctrine" as set forth in the CA Civil Code section 1714(a): "Everyone is responsible, not only for the results of his willful acts, but also for injury occasioned to another by his want of ordinary care or skill in the management of his property or person, except so far as the later has, willfully or by want of ordinary care, brought the injury upon himself."
In addressing this issue, the Supreme Court of CA stated: "a person is not contributorily negligent who, with due care, encounters the risk created by the defendant's negligence in order to perform a rescue necessitated by that negligence." (Neighbarger v. Irwin Industries, Inc. (1994) 8Cal.4th 532,536-537) Absent entirely reckless conduct, a rescuer is not deemed to have brought the injury upon himself under Civil Code section 1714; provocation does not include the acts of a person attempting to prevent an animal from physically attacking, mauling, or physically injuring by biting another person or animal (County of Sacramento Code of Ordinances, section 8.04.260 Vicious Animal). We were given incorrect information by public officials which would serve to dissuade us from pursuing legal actions.
- I have contacted numerous city officials multiple times, including the Mayor's Office, our home district Councilman, Tom LaBonge, and the President of the City Council, Herbert J. Wesson, Jr. None of these officials have responded to my letters and emails.
- Lack of follow-up by the LA Department of Animal Services: separate requests made by us and by our attorney for a copy of their report have gone unanswered. We have been told that a hearing will be conducted to determine the fate of the pit bull which attacked us, yet phone calls to ascertain the date of said hearing have gone unanswered.
- No follow-up by the Los Angeles County Department of Health: we were told that a report had to be filed with the Department of Health because a dog bite injury occurred during the attack (this was the justification for the 10 day at home quarantine of the pit bull). Information was taken by the Police, by Animal Services, and at the ER, but I have not received any communications from the County Department of Health nor from the Rabies Control Section of the Department of Health.
Proposed Solutions to the Problems Posed by Pit Bulls:
- Use the City and County of Denver definition of a Pit Bull as set forth in their 1989 ban on pit bulls: "any dog that is an American Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, or any dog displaying the majority of physical traits of any one or more of the above breeds, or any dog exhibiting those distinguishing characteristics which substantially conform to the standards established by the American Kennel Club or United Kennel Club for any of the above breeds."
- A ban on Pit Bulls (The ban in the City and County of Denver could serve as a model) which would ban the future sale, breeding or adoption of pit bulls. Current pit bulls could be grandfathered in if they are currently licensed and if the owner applied for a new, special "Pit Bull License."
- A City/County Ordinance that would prima facially label the breed "potentially dangerous," and which would trigger special rules for all pit bull owners, including, but not limited to, requirements that owners obtain a "potentially dangerous breed permit" and a city license on an annual basis; that they provide proof of sterilization and microchipping; prohibitions against invisible fences and tethering to a stationary object; and requirements that owners carry liability insurance.
- Mandatory spay/neuter laws.
- Enforcement of current laws, including, but not limited to the ones mentioned in the above section of this letter.
This is a brief account of our experiences and what we hope to accomplish by working with the City of Los Angeles to address the growing public safety problem posed by pit bulls and other dangerous animals. Since we were attacked on February 16th, we have heard numerous accounts similar to ours -- some not as severe and some more so -- from fellow Angelinos. I cannot thank you and Councilman Krekorian enough for taking the time to consider our situation and our desire to be of service to our community. If either of you have any questions or require clarification on anything raised in this letter, please do not hesitate to contact us. And again, thank you for taking the time to listen to us at the Studio City Neighborhood Council Meeting. It was extremely meaningful to us to know that we have an ear in local government.
Stephen Elliott and Howard "Rusty" Fox
Contact Stephen: smebd--at--aol.com
What happened to Stephen, Rusty and Vargas can happen to you and your beloved dog at any time and in just about any place, that includes walking down Ventura Boulevard. These attacks occur extremely suddenly and rapid-fire -- the pit bull bolts from its owner's door, snaps its chain, or in this case, charges out of a retail store. As you can see from Stephen's account, victims are often Shit Out of Luck legally and also blamed for the injuries inflicted by the loose attacking dog.
- At what point should a victim and his attorney be able to receive a copy of their biting incident report filed by animal services? In just over 60 days, this report was still unavailable to Stephen and his attorney. This is a complaint we hear quite often at DogsBite.org. At maximum, it should be 30 days. This attack resulted in serious bodily injury to Stephen and the brutal death of his dog.
- A "10 day quarantine in the owner's apartment," how much more minimizing of this attack is possible? The owner cannot control her dog and irresponsibly allowed her dog to run loose and authorities are perfectly accepting of the idea that she can responsibly quarantine her dog for 10 days and watch for rabies. Not fulfilling this obligation could result in the death of a human being.
- Despite the dog owner being woefully guilty of multiple city violations, she was not cited for a single one. Clearly the "deficiencies" of law enforcement are profound in Los Angeles. Further, despite suffering exceptional physical and emotional losses (and $10,000 out of pocket) so far, Stephen and Rusty can't even be comforted by the fact that basic citations were given to the dog's owner.
- The lack of citing this dog owner for an infraction/misdemeanor penalty for a dog bite means that this bite was not added to this pit bull's record. A future victim of this dog will not have a paper trail that shows its owner had 100% knowledge of the dog's propensity for viciousness. This "bite" resulted in the amputation of part of Stephen's finger on his right hand and fatal injuries to his dog.
- Merely designating an animal that bit off a human body part "Potentially Dangerous" is obscene. This was an attack by an out of control, unleashed dog that occurred in a highly public setting. The severe injury inflicted by this violent dog in this public setting should qualify for a "Dangerous" or "Vicious" designation, which carries far more legal weight and ramifications for the dog's owner.
- As stated in the video, Stephen was horrified to learn that because he tried to save his dog from a vicious attack by a loose pit bull, suffering a maiming injury is his fault. He should have just stood there and watched as the pit bull ripped his dog to shreds and his partner, knocked to curb, was virtually helpless with a serious back injury. What if his partner had been the pit bull's next victim?
- This "blame the victim" routine also appears to be false in the State of California ("we were given incorrect information by public officials which would serve to dissuade us from pursuing legal actions").3 Stephen and Rusty do not have a civil case to pursue because the "drum roll" pit bull owner is judgment proof, though she still has enough stashed away to shop at Lush Shoes.
- Numbers 2-4 in the section, Problems We Have Encountered, are further disturbing. The lack of response by city representatives, lack of follow-up by the LA Department of Animal Services and total absence of follow up by the LA County Department of Health and the Rabies Control Section. How many hundreds of other dog attack victims have experienced the exact same response?
- Just after submitting their letter, Stephen and Rusty learned that California state law only allows breed-specific ordinances that regulate the spay/neuter status of a breed. This modest expansion was added in 2005 and allowed San Francisco to adopt the first mandatory pit bull sterilization law. The original, all-encompassing, anti-BSL state law was passed in 1989 (SB 428, Torres).
2Some of the cited municipal code is Los Angeles County code instead of Los Angeles City code. Because the city failed to provide Stephen and Rusty with any information about their rights or future proceedings, they were forced to do research on their own. It is overwhelming to be an attack victim, much less having to also put on a legal hat that requires knowledge of city, county and state dog bite laws and how these laws intertwine.
3California has progressive civil and criminal dog laws compared to many other states. An overwhelming number of jurisdictions across the U.S. have no animal-on-animal attack laws at all. We have certainly heard from victims in other states that they have been told the same thing: "It is your fault you were injured; you intervened in a dog fight."
03/11/14: Letter: Colorado Springs Senior Citizen Asks 'Why No Pit Bull Ban' After Vicious Attack
06/21/14: Dog Bite Law News Release: It’s Time for the Pit Bull 'Recall' Too
05/31/14: DogsBite.org Featured as Guest Columnist in Support of Pit Bull Bans
Photos and video: Mike Szymanski