The Ohio Supreme Court has unanimously declared that K-9 handlers can be held liable for negligent acts involving their dogs while off duty, overturning a decision of a lower court in the case of Harris v. Hilderbrand.
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit involving Belmont County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Officer Dustin Hilderbrand, whose dog inflicted severe injuries on a guest during a backyard barbecue he had hosted in his Belmont County home in the summer of 2019.
According to reports, Hilderbrand decided to showcase his K-9 partner Xyrem’s attack commands and drug-sniffing abilities to his guests. This included hiding narcotics around his yard for the dog to find.
Unfortunately, the demonstration led to a guest named Allison Harris being bitten by the K-9, causing serious injuries that required surgery.
Notably, the canine’s shock collar was removed during the event.
The Ohio Supreme Court’s unanimous decision ultimately reversed the Seventh District Court of Appeals’ judgment, establishing a significant precedent for police officer liability.
The decision, clarified in an opinion from former law enforcement officer and Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy, argued that there is no absolute immunity for police officers who bring their K-9 partners home and engage in negligent acts resulting in injury or damages to others.
Jamie Bordas, managing partner of Bordas & Bordas, the law firm that represented Harris, welcomed the ruling, claiming it ensures individuals’ accountability for negligence.
“If any individual, including a police officer, engages in negligent acts that harm another person, like Ms. Harris here, they should be held responsible, and their insurance company should pay damages for those acts,” Bordas said in a statement, where he also cited testimony claiming the officer was under the influence of alcohol at the time. “The officer in this case was off duty, drinking alcohol at a party at his home, and using the dog in an inappropriate manner to do tricks for his guests by having him search for drug paraphernalia in his yard and giving him police commands. There is even testimony that he gave the dog alcohol to drink.”
Judge Joseph J. Bruzzese Jr. of the Jefferson County trial court acknowledged the necessity of keeping the K-9 at Hilderbrand’s residence but reiterated that the dog’s intended purpose was for police work, not entertainment.
Consequently, Bruzzese ruled that Hilderbrand was not immune from liability for the injuries caused by the K-9 during an event intended for amusement.
Hilderbrand initially appealed the trial court’s decision, leading to the Seventh District’s judgment, which granted him immunity. However, this decision was subsequently overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court, which remanded the case back to the trial court in Jefferson County for further proceedings.
The outcome of this case will now hinge on a jury’s determination of whether Hilderbrand acted negligently and, if so, the assessment of damages owed to Harris.