Madison - St. Clair Record

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Granite City not liable for dog bite suffered by missing woman during search and rescue mission

By Ann Maher | Apr 7, 2016

The Fifth District Appellate Court has sided with a Granite City police dog, whose search and rescue efforts entangled him in a Madison County personal injury suit.

Justices reversed Circuit Judge Barbara Crowder who last year denied the city's motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Rynette Benton on behalf of Genevieve K. Southward. The appellate court remanded with an order to dismiss with prejudice.

The 2014 lawsuit involved Granite City K-9 specialist "AM" who was blamed for biting Southward, who suffered from Alzheimer's and dementia, according to court records. Southward was reported missing from an assisted living facility in September 2013, and Granite City police responded with a search.

Southward claimed that AM attacked and bit her in the arm without provocation during the search, while she was "peaceably conducting herself next to a public roadway."

In its motion to dismiss, Granite City, represented by the Evans Blasi firm of Granite City, argued that the Tort Immunity Act provided immunity under section 16 of the Animal Control Act.

In response, plaintiff Benton, represented by the Unsell Schuman firm in East Alton, moved for partial summary judgment arguing that section 16 of the Animal Control Act is a strict liability statute. Her lawyers argued that by filing a motion to dismiss under section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure, Granite City had admitted allegations in the complaint, including the fact that it owned the dog and the dog bit Genevieve, which entitled the plaintiff to a judgment on liability as a matter of law.

Crowder denied both motions in August 2014. She ruled that Granite City was not immune from liability because section 16 of the ACA is a strict liability statute; she also found plaintiff's partial summary judgment motion premature.

Granite City moved to certify questions for the Fifth District. Crowder certified: (1) Does section 4-102 of the Tort Immunity Act

provide immunity for claims brought under section 16 of the Animal Control Act? (2) Is section 16 of the Animal Control Act a strict liability statute?

Justice Randy Moore wrote the opinion published March 4, holding that the Tort Immunity Act provided Granite City immunity. Justices Melissa Chapman and Judy Cates concurred.

"To hold a city police department liable based on its discernment of how to conduct a search and rescue mission, and especially one that is successful in locating an individual as in this case, would be wholly inconsistent with the strong public policy underlying section 4-102 of the Tort Immunity Act," Moore wrote. "Such a holding would also have a deterring effect on police departments' use of police dogs on these often life-saving search and rescue missions."

The court did not address the second certified question on strict liability because "we find that our answer to the first certified question resolves the issues that were before the circuit court when it ruled on Granite City's motion to dismiss and will effectively terminate the litigation between the plaintiff and Granite City."

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