“Failure to read the fine print”

I’m currently representing a former K9 handler who got in trouble when he failed to read the fine print of a “retired K9 agreement” (contract) he signed when he took possession of his police dog from his agency.  His failure to read the fine print resulted in some serious discipline (“trouble”) that is now being appealed.  (I’m saying “fine print” for dramatic emphasis as the font size was the same for all sections throughout the agreement.)  The handler asked me to share his story without the specifics to potentially help other handlers avoid similar repercussions.  Here’s the abridged version;  He didn’t read the entire contract and fully comply with the terms that consisted of only two pages.

“Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.” -Pete Seeger

As I was reviewing the involved agreement, I did notice two familiar sections that continue to cause me concern (“haunt me”) as they remain as standards for most of the retired K9 agreements I’ve seen over the past several years;  1) handlers required to [financially] defend their agency should trouble occur, and, 2) transfer of ownership.

I previously shared a “Reason” titled “The Retired Police Dog and Handler Liability” where I addressed the section of most agreements that reads similar to;  Consistent with the agreement that the canine shall be your sole responsibility and obligation, you agree to indemnify, defend, and hold harmless the [municipality], the [municipality’s police department]…or other liability in any forum that is initiated or might be brought against the [municipality] by any individual that in any manner arose or resulted from the actions of the canine. This indemnification includes attorneys’ fees and costs in the event the [municipality] is required to litigate any claim or cause of action arising out of your obligation hereunder.

If you read the “fine print” above, you will notice – if you are the handler – that YOU will DEFEND your agency (and employer) if something bad happens should you and the agency get sued.  In simple terms, it means this – you will pay the cost of attorneys’ fees and other costs to defend not only yourself, but your employer.  If you’ve been involved in similar litigation as a handler when the agency covered you, you might ask about the total costs incurred.   I believe most of you can’t afford to defend both you and your employer should something really serious occur – or it may bankrupt you in the process should you be required to do so.  As I’ve recommended before, you need to change the agreement so that you and your employer will defend yourselves respectively as individual entities minimally should a lawsuit occur.  It’s the right thing to do!

“What one has not experienced, one will never understand in print.” -Isadora Duncan

The other area that could cause trouble afterward is the decision to later transfer ownership if specified within the agreement, like;  The canine shall be your sole responsibility and obligation.  Should you become unable or unwilling to provide basic care and upkeep for the canine, you shall be responsible, at your expense, for the destruction of the canine.  Under no circumstances shall the canine be given, sold or transferred to any other person, organization, department or agency without the written approval of this agency.   If the agreement requires the handler to notify the agency in advance that the handler wishes to transfer ownership, that procedure allows the agency to either reclaim the dog or consider/approve other arrangements to address its obligations and liability concerns.

In most situations, police dogs are “retired” because they are no longer able to work as required.  And, in most cases, a handler usually purchases the dog for the sum of one dollar.  However, there are rare times when a handler may request or be offered the opportunity to purchase the dog still capable of working for various reasons – and any consideration in that matter should require an evaluation by the agency to determine a fair market value based on the working life of that dog.   If a handler purchases the dog that is still able to work, a possibility exists that the dog could be later sold to a vendor or another agency with the intent of working elsewhere as a police dog.  If the handler transfers ownership without notifying the agency if specified within the agreement, trouble can occur.  And – the purchase of a dog still capable of working should require an agreement with specific wording to address that situation. 

“I agreed by accident!”

You can be naïve and not read (or understand) a contract or its fine print and believe no trouble will ever occur to you related to the purchase of a retired (or “still capable of working”) police dog – but that is not a realistic approach.  You might even be asking rhetorically “Who doesn’t read a contact before signing?”  It reminds me of the classic South Park episode where Kyle is kidnapped after agreeing to the lengthy iTunes user agreement that he didn’t read (as most of us do not) and claiming “I agreed by accident!”  (For a little laugh on the topic, you can view a short video clip by clicking here.)

Here’s the bottom line;  The vast majority of these agreements are created to serve the best interests of the agency/employer, not the handler.  Handlers are often doing the agency a public relations favor by accepting the retired dog and caring for it after it has served its community so an agency should reciprocate accordingly and handlers should insist upon and/or negotiate for a fair agreement, not a one-sided agreement.

Take care, be safe and read the fine print fully before you sign….

Bill Lewis II

This “reason” was originally shared on April 29, 2015.

“Trouble” isn’t always related to incidents or predicaments that directly result in lawsuits, claims or discipline. Often times, our actions or inactions that are missed, deliberately overlooked or downplayed may lead to nothing or can later lead to mistakes or bad incidents with minimal to serious repercussions.  A reason we get in trouble can be minor or simple at first glance – or even serious – but a combination of these factors can often have disastrous consequences.   

These “reasons” are provided periodically as a collection in-progress based on actual incidents and real attitudes as well as feedback received at HITS, the CNCA Training Institute, and the “Canine Liability 360” classes.  As Gordon Graham says, “We haven’t found new ways to get in trouble.” So, as the list progresses, you may or may not read something familiar to you that you have personally experienced or seen others encounter. If you encountered or heard about it, did you learn from it?