“The retired police dog and handler liability”

I was reviewing a “release of liability” document from another agency a few days ago that addressed the purchase of a retired police dog by its handler. Here’s the wording that concerns me;

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], and any of its officers, employees, agents, and assigns, current and former, from any claim, loss, damage, or other liability in any forum that is initiated or might be brought against the [municipality] (including the [police department]) 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.

I had a bad flashback to the time I purchased a puppy (when I was the K9 supervisor) that I later trained and certified for narcotic detection and offered to lease the dog to my department for $1.00 per year.  Some of the language in the lease agreement resembled the language above with respect to defending and the indemnification.  When I inquired further, I learned that I would have to pay to defend the city if a lawsuit or claim arose naming the city as a defendant for the actions of the dog and any penalties if a lawsuit was lost.  It didn’t take me long to do the math if I had to pay attorney’s fees to defend the city and any monetary damages – and $1.00 per year probably won’t cover it.  We agreed to change the wording and the city would defend themselves for any on-duty incident [and should have included off-duty if not the obvious fault of the handler should both be sued].  2022 Update:  I should not have “leased” to the dog in hindsight.  I should have sold the dog to my agency for $1.00 so they assumed all liability with the written understanding the dog would be returned to me when no longer working.

I’m not an attorney but it seems to me that the same situation would occur with the language contained within the release above.  For example, if your retired police dog bites someone and you get sued – the chances are great that your agency and city/county will also get sued – and it appears you would have to pay for their defense.  Having served as an expert witness now for the past several years, I can practically guarantee you a claim or lawsuit process probably won’t be cheap and it’s time to ask yourself “Can I afford it if it happens?” instead of saying “It’ll never happen to me!”

These agreements are necessary – for both a department and a handler – but the wording can be changed in the best interest of your K9 program to make sure retired police dogs get a safe place to live out the remainder of their years.  Most handlers will say “It’s not necessary” but why risk it?

An agency should do the right thing and protect its handlers by agreeing to defend themselves if an incident occurs.  I highly recommend you take a look at your agreement now if you have one and consult with an attorney to make sure you are protected if and when the day comes and propose appropriate changes if necessary. If you don’t have an agreement other than a “retired police dog purchase receipt” that could be interpreted as “you are now responsible, not us” you might consider getting a better agreement because you are probably in the same situation with respect to your responsibility and obligation.

This is the first time I’ve shared a “Reason” where I am not personally aware of a handler getting into trouble for the described situation – but it could happen so I’d like to avoid the dilemma for you or others if possible. If this situation happened to you or someone you know, please send me a brief synopsis and its outcome, particularly if it will benefit others.

Here’s a followup on this “reason” I shared on March 6, 2015; 

You’ll recall the recent topic related to a retired police dog agreement and handler liability and I wrote I was not aware of a situation that actually happened.   Well, someone has shared a story that I will share with you as a followup to assist in emphasizing my point about taking steps to protect yourself as a handler and perhaps as a department.  

A standard agreement was signed similar to what I mentioned previously that placed the liability and any potential defense of “the county” with the handler. The retired dog “escapes” the backyard and bites an elderly man, causing very severe injury.  A claim is filed against the handler and the county.  The county steps up and offers to defend itself – even though it is not responsible to do so.  A settlement occurs – the handler’s homeowner’s insurance pays $100,000 and the county pays $75,000.   The exact cost paid by the handler to retain an attorney is not known, but believed to have been minimal as shared costs were incurred with the county to arrange the settlement.

This incident might be an exception – but it was good to read that the county did the right thing.  It was probably in their best interest to do so.   Regardless, this is one example how you might get in trouble financially if you are not properly prepared and protected in case your department doesn’t do the right thing.  And, you might want to inspect your yard and kennel and take the necessary steps and precautions to prevent an escape.

Take care, be safe and don’t have a “it won’t happen to me” attitude…

Bill Lewis II

This “Reason” was originally shared on February 10, 2014 and updated on March 6, 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?