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OFFICERS CLEARED IN MAULING SUIT
Jury rules in favor of county in civil dog mauling suit

 Dorothy Sullivan and her dog, Buttons, were killed by a pack of pit bulls in 2005.
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Date published: 3/6/2009

BY ELLEN BILTZ

A Spotsylvania County jury decided yesterday not to award any money to Dorothy Sullivan's beneficiaries in the wrongful death suit they filed against county employees.

The suit, filed in 2007 against four Spotsylvania County animal control officers, claimed gross negligence by the officers in the time leading up to Sullivan's killing by a pack of pit bulls.

Sullivan, 82, died March 8, 2005, after being mauled by the three roaming pit bulls.

Her neighbor Deanna Large, who owned the dogs, was convicted later that year of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison.

Large became the first person in Virginia convicted in a case involving a pet killing a person. The case set a legal precedent for the state.

Yesterday, the seven-person jury ruled that the officers' actions, or lack thereof, were not a cause in Sullivan's slaying.

It was unclear whether Large's convictions played a part in that, but Jim Guynn, who represented the officers, said he felt it did.

"It's just a very tragic case, but Deanna Large was convicted for this happening, and I think the jury realized that," he said.

Sullivan's family, represented by attorney Thomas Albro, alleged that animal control officers had failed in their duty to protect Sullivan from the dogs by not responding appropriately to calls that the dogs were acting aggressively toward her and her dog, Buttons.

Albro told the jury in closing arguments that the officers had not done all they could to protect the elderly woman.

"Why did this lady's tragic death occur?" he asked rhetorically. "The persons who were charged to protect and serve her did not follow the rules."

Albro's main argument was that the officers should have done more investigating after Sullivan's repeated calls about the dogs.

He also told the jury that the the officers were grossly negligent in not informing Sullivan when her neighbor's German shepherd was mauled to death March 1, a week before her own death.

But Guynn pointed out to the jury the actions that were taken after Sullivan's phone calls were made.

He said officer Jeremy Board responded to Sullivan's house and followed the path she said the dogs had taken, only to come up with nothing. Another officer, John Davis, checked traps in the neighborhood after hours.

Guynn added that officers had always responded promptly after receiving a call, although Albro said when officers responded, they typically only drove through the neighborhood instead of getting out of their cars to investigate.

The jurors deliberated for about three hours yesterday before returning a verdict in favor of the defense. In doing so, they denied awarding money to the family.

"We're obviously very pleased," said Guynn, who had been hired by the county.

Sullivan's family and Albro declined to comment after the ruling yesterday.

Ellen Biltz: 540/374-5424
Email: ebiltz@freelancestar.com