For more than 10 years, Russ Greenberg has waited for justice against the deputies who shot and killed his dog Petey in front of his west Boca Raton home.
His day in court is finally coming Jan. 15 in a rare animal rights case that will put the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office on trial. The deputies insist they put down an aggressive pit bull in self-defense.
"That was my kid," said Greenberg, 48, of the white American Staffordshire Terrier with the black circle around his left eye who died in a hail of gunfire May 16, 2002. "How do you put a price on something so close to your heart?"
Greenberg's lawsuit asks a jury to award financial damages in excess of $15,000 for the loss of his canine companion of seven years. But his claim is limited under Florida law to the nominal replacement value of the dog as an item of personal property, rather than a much higher sentimental value.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge David Crow also has refused to allow the civil jury to hear Greenberg's claim for "intentional infliction of emotional distress," unless he can first prove that the officers acted maliciously in shooting his dog.
Greenberg's attorney, Barry Silver, says the evidence shows the fatal shooting of Petey was "so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency."
Silver says he disagrees with Crow's application of state law in the case, and argues his client should be entitled to the intrinsic value of his pet even without proving there was malice.
Seth Kolton, attorney for the Sheriff's Office, said efforts to settle the case during mediation failed, and the defense is ready for a three-day trial. Kolton said he could not comment beyond the department's objections as stated in court pleadings.
This summer, the sheriff's lawyers asked the court to impose sanctions requiring Greenberg to pay their fees for having to defend against unsupported claims.
"Essentially, this case is about a pit bull that was shot in self-defense after the pit bull bit a little girl, menaced a postal worker and several other people, and attempted to attack two deputy sheriffs," wrote attorney William Cornwell.
The request, which is pending, also accuses Greenberg of being aware that Petey was aggressive and stated he had been asked by a neighbor to better contain the dog in its home on the 19200 block of Liberty Road.
"Plaintiff is attempting to hold Defendants liable for his loss when Defendants were doing nothing more than responding to a dog bite call, investigating that call, and protecting the public and themselves when Plaintiff's aggressive pit bull tried to bite yet another person," Cornell wrote.
In turn, Silver filed a request seeking sanctions for what he claims are conflicting testimony by the deputies about what happened.
According to incident reports, three deputies and a sergeant responded to an emergency call of a dog that had just bitten a 12-year-old girl walking home from a school bus stop.
Bruce Hannan, the sergeant, reported he shot the dog at least once with his .40-caliber handgun because the dog approached him in a "threatening manner." Deputy Joseph Caroscio reported the dog then ran toward him at a full sprint.
Caroscio said he fired two rounds from his pump-action shotgun, because his "safety was in question" and the dog had bitten the girl.
"I felt it was necessary to use deadly force and utilize my shotgun to neutralize the threat of the pursuing dog," Caroscio wrote.
Greenberg, a retired professional wrestler who now works as a Mixed Martial Arts referee and sells real estate, says his dog was always friendly and "looked like a teddy bear." The breed has been popularly identified as a pit bull, but the American Kennel Club calls it a strong and loyal "people-oriented" dog in the terrier family.
Through the past two decades, Silver has gained fame representing South Florida pet owners like Greenberg in a variety of "paw" suits.
In 1994, he represented the owner of Lucky, a black Labrador mix that survived being shot five times by a Boynton Beach police officer the previous year. The city settled the highly publicized case in 1996 with a $7,500 payout.
About a decade later Silver made headlines by fighting in Broward Circuit Court on behalf of a Tamarac family and another Lucky, a Shetland sheepdog. Silver asserted the rights of the owners to sue a veterinarian for malpractice and for their pain and suffering after the 2001 death of their pet. But the case never went to trial.
In June, Silver and another client sued Fort Lauderdale police over the shooting death of an Australian shepherd named Bandy the previous month. The department ruled the actions of the officer were justified, but Bandy's owner is seeking damages for what he claims was an unprovoked and unjustified killing.
"Most attorneys in their right mind won't bring a case about a dog, because in the eyes of the law animals have no value," Silver said.
But courts across the nation are beginning to expand the traditional view of
pets as any other pieces of property worth only their market cost to replace.
One of the most closely watched cases is in Texas. That state's supreme court this year agreed to hear objections to a 2011 Texas appellate court ruling that "the special value of man's best friend should be protected" as "dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners."
Silver said the Bandy and Petey cases similarly involve "trigger happy" cops who should have been better "trained in ways to subdue a dog without killing it." Greenberg's complaint alleges "police officers frequently kill companion animals with impunity."
But in October 2009, Judge Crow dismissed with prejudice Silver's allegations concerning the training issue. The order said Greenberg couldn't sue on those grounds because such policy making decisions of the Sheriff's Office are "discretionary and subject to sovereign immunity."