Sunday, May 21, 2017

West Virginia’s Supreme Court has reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a 70-year-old man mauled by a neighbor’s pit bulls, saying a circuit judge’s decision to dismiss the claims was “factually incorrect.”

WEST VIRGINIA -- West Virginia’s Supreme Court has reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a 70-year-old man mauled by a neighbor’s pit bulls, saying a circuit judge’s decision to dismiss the claims was “factually incorrect.”

The victim, Lowell Bowden, had gone for a walk near his Monroe County home in Lindside in November 2009 when “four or five pit bulls” running loose savaged him, his widow, Dreama Bowden, said.

Dreama Bowden claims neighbors had frequently complained about the pit bulls, with several reporting the snarling dogs had jumped on the hoods of their cars or pinned them in their vehicles on their own property. 

Dreama Bowden insists she told the dog warden, Patricia Green, the dogs were dangerous and was told the county “would take care of it.”

The Bowden family said a hunter and his young daughter spotted four of the dogs standing over Lowell’s body and fired a gun to scare away the dogs. By the time they got to him, he was mauled beyond recognition, his family has said.

Dreama Bowden filed suit in 2011 against the owner of four of the pit bulls, Justin Blankenship; the owners of the fifth pit bull, Anna Hughes and Moses Christian; Blankenship’s mother, Kimberly Blankenship, who owned the property where the five dogs were kept; Green, sued both individually and in her official capacity as Monroe County’s dog warden; the county commission and American Modern Home Insurance Co. Dreama Bowman claimed Green was aware the dogs were aggressive yet allowed them to remain at large.

Dreama Bowden said she called 911 to report her concerns about the dogs and spoke with Green, who, she claims, later came to her home to discuss her concerns face-to-face.

Green, however, denied talking to Dreama Bowden, meeting at her house “or making any assurances in relation to any pit bulls.”

Monroe Circuit Judge Robert A. Irons dismissed the charges against county officials in September 2016, saying Dreama Bowden failed to prove the dog warden knew there was a problem and thus had no “affirmative duty” to take action.

On appeal, however, the Supreme Court pointed out the dog warden herself had testified she had witnessed the aggressive nature of one of the pit bulls, and because of it, when dog warden Patricia Green went to the Blankenship home to deliver the citation to Justin Blankenship, the dog warden Patricia Green and her husband refused to get out of the car and, instead, instructed him to keep the dogs chained and fenced.

The high court said the circuit judge “incorrectly found” that when Green went to Blankenship’s home and issued the citation, she confirmed that no other pit bulls were in his house or on his property, even though she didn’t get out of her vehicle and the citation was served late in the evening.

The justices said concluding that Green had confirmed the absence of multiple pit bulls at the Blankenship home was “factually incorrect based upon the evidence in the record.”

“Contrary to the circuit court’s findings and the county’s arguments, the record on appeal contains numerous statements from neighbors living in the same rural community as the Bowdens detailing encounters with one or more of the pit bulls where the dogs were running loose and acting aggressively,” Justice Robin Davis wrote.

Neighbors had complained the dogs were “running loose constantly.” One man had said the dogs had to be chased off his property on several occasions and that he’d called animal control and “nothing was done.”

“The various complaints, combined with (Green’s) own experience with one of the dogs ... were sufficient to establish a question of fact with respect to the county’s knowledge that its inaction could lead to harm,” the justices ruled.

It was the second time Irons was reversed in the Bowden case. The first time, in 2013, the Supreme Court reinstated the case because Irons hadn’t ruled on Dreama Bowden’s motion to amend her complaint before granting the county’s petition to dismiss the case.

In addition to the civil proceedings, authorities had charged Justin Blankenship, his mother, Hughes and Griffin with involuntary manslaughter.

Justin Blankenship had pleaded guilty in 2010 to involuntary manslaughter and four counts each of failure to register dogs and failure to vaccinate for rabies, while Kimberly Blankenship was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter after her son testified the dogs were his.

Charges against Hughes and Christian were dropped because no evidence was found suggesting their dog had been involved in the attack on Lowell Bowden.

All five pit bulls were euthanized.

(The State Journal - May 20, 2017)