The Flagler County Commission this evening emphatically rejected a proposed settlement that would have removed the dangerous dog designation from the Labrador responsible for an attack on an 8-year-old child in early July, biting the child below the eye after the child entered the dog’s home uninvited. The bite required 45 stitches.
The commission’s 4-1 vote reasserts a September decision in which commissioners rejected a hearing officer’s finding that the dog, called Bacchus, had acted in defense of what it considers its domain. But the case is not over. The proposed settlement, worked out between County Attorney Al Hadeed and attorney Vince Lyon, who represents Jay and Dawn Sweatt, the dog owners, would have avoided further litigation. Now, Lyon said, the case will go back before County Judge Melissa Moore-Stens for further proceedings. The proposed settlement had been one step in those proceedings.
The terms of the proposed settlement filled one paragraph, being an amendment to restrictions imposed by the “dangerous dog” requirement. Several of those restrictions would have stayed in place, including the requirement to tattoo the dog or have him electronically identified, with an implant, as a dog with that attack’s history–but not as a “dangerous dog.” The most significant effect of removing the designation would have kept the Sweatts of being charged with a third-degree felony should the dog bite someone again. In the proposed settlement, the dog would have been confined in the Sweatts’ house “when not under the direct control of an adult owner,” warning signs would have been posted at the house entrance, the dog would have had to be trained, and Bacchus would have had to be muzzled when off the Sweatts’s property.
“The Sweatts don’t believe their dog is a dangerous dog who presents a danger to the community,” Lyon told commissioners. “They want hat you want which is to make sure our community is a safe one.” He conceded that the July attack “was bad, it was distressing, and a child was injured,” but not that the dog had acted as a dangerous animal.
The child, Ricky Westfall, 8, was friends with one of the Sweatts’s children and visited there often, but that day had tried to visit and been told to come back later in the day, after calling first. When he returned, he found the door unlocked. It’s not clear who let him in, if anyone. Once he entered, the dog bit him.
Lyon briefly argued before commissioners that the proposed settlement did not change the commission’s previous finding (although in one substantial way it did just that, by removing the dangerous dog designation). Rather, he said, the settlement relieves the family of certain requirements, such as building an outdoors enclosure (they live on a 5-acre property, and even the Westfalls’ attorney, Dennis Bayer, conceded that enclosing the whole property was not realistic). Of Geri Westfall, the victim’s mother, Lyon said, “I do understand her pain, my client understands her pain and they’re doing everything reasonable to protect the community.”
Westfall did not agree with the settlement.
“This settlement is a joke,” she wrote in a Dec. 17 email to Bayer. “It doesn’t protect anyone from Bacchus chasing them down if they are in the street or riding their bike or taking a walk–because the Sweatts only have an underground fence that Bacchus has a history of running through.” (Westfall was referring to a documented incident when the dog reacted aggressively to a couple biking by, prompting a man to fire his gun as a warning against the dog, which had not, in fact, crossed the underground fence.) “My former neighbors,” Westfall, who has since moved from the neighborhood, continued, “carry Tasers, baseball bats, and golf clubs when they walk and ride their bikes and they get no help from anyone with authority. Look to the extent I have gone and now they are considering this agreement? It’s a joke!”
Bayer presented a more measured view of the proposed settlement, saying he understood for the need to settle when possible, but that the settlement was too vague and permissive, and that Lyon’s statement about the dog not being dangerous was worrisome. “The training is so vague, they could have a next-door neighbor come in and provide training for the dog,” Bayer said. The training curriculum should be specific and prescribed, he said, otherwise it’s a “more or less meaningless proposition.”
Bayer was also concerned about the Sweatts’s lack of insurance. He said they should face some measure of financial obligation in addition to providing better assurances of security to neighbors.
Commissioner Frank Meeker, the lone dissenter in September in the dangerous dog declaration, again was willing to go with the settlement if it were strengthened. He suggested the dog should be tethered whenever it was outside, a proposal Lyon said he would agree to.
But Meeker was still the lone dissenter.
“I’m very troubled over the severity of the injury to this young child and am of the belief if an animal attacks with that viciousness, that they possibly could do it again,” Commissioner George Hanns said.
Lyon disputed the characterization of the attack as vicious, saying the record reflected that the dog attacked once, biting the boy severely, but “this was not a dog attempting to take someone down.” Commissioner Barbara Revels said the matter was not about to be re-litigated before the commission. As chairman of the commission, she could not make a motion on the matter. But she appeared eager to do so as she passed the gavel to Commissioner Nate McLaughlin and moved to reject the settlement. Hanns seconded, and the commission voted 4-1 for her motion.
Lyon confirmed after the meeting that the issue would be in county court next.