ATLANTA -- A DeKalb County police officer will not be held liable for her police dog’s attack of an 11-year-old neighbor, according to a Georgia Supreme Court decision issued Monday.
In November 2011, Officer Lynn Eshleman’s police dog, Andor, chased and injured Chandler Key in the neighbor’s front yard when Eshleman failed to secure the latch to the dog’s kennel.
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that while Eshleman had a duty to restrain Andor from injuring others, she is still protected by her “official immunity,” meaning that she cannot be held personally liable for her performance of official duties.
“As a DeKalb County Police officer and dog handler, Eshleman is responsible for the care and maintenance of Andor at all times, even when she is not working,” wrote Justice Keith Blackwell in the opinion. “For this reason, the allegation that Eshleman failed to secure the dog outside her home concerns her performance of an official function, and Eshleman presumptively is entitled to official immunity.”
Eshleman had been assigned the police dog, trained to apprehend criminal suspects, and she kept Andor at her home when not working.
She lived in the same neighborhood as Key, and she had placed Andor in the kennel in the back of her truck to go visit a friend. When she failed to shut the kennel properly, Andor escaped and ran to the yard where the boys were playing. Key was chased, dragged to the ground and injured by the dog.
Key’s father sued Eshleman, alleging she’d been negligent. His son suffered a laceration and a puncture wound, and he had to be treated in the hospital.
Eshleman admitted she had not securely locked the dog in, but she argued she was entitled to official immunity because in caring for Andor she had been performing her duties as a police officer. She filed a motion for a summary judgment, which would have allowed the judge to make a decision without a jury.
The trial court denied her motion, and the Court of Appeals upheld that decision. The state’s top court reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision on Monday.
Chase Swanson, who argued Key’s case, said that while the justices’ ruling made legal sense, the immunity statutes in Georgia leave individuals with little way to recover damages from an official.
“The frustration is that one thing we’re always trying to accomplish is holding people accountable for situations, whether they’re incidental or intended, to incentivize people to be responsible,” he said.
The police dog that injured Key had been specifically trained to attack people, Swanson said.
“Fortunately Chandler was able to recover from his injuries and move forward, but certainly those dogs are big enough and strong enough to kill people,” he said.
The Supreme Court justices found that Eshleman’s responsibility to properly secure the dog was “discretionary,” meaning it required special deliberation and judgment, giving her official immunity.
“In this case, there is no evidence that DeKalb County gave specific direction to Eshleman — by policy or otherwise — about the extent to which she was to keep Andor restrained when she was not working or the particular way in which she was to do so,” Blackwell wrote.