The family of Lena Dickerson is suing Disneyland, claiming the toddler was attacked by a dog in the park’s petting zoo on October 3, 2006 according to a report on Fox News. The child was bit several times on the face leaving her permanently scarred.
Court documents allege that a Disneyland employee brought her 6-year-old German Shepherd – Labrador Retriever mix dog to the park. The dog was placed on a box in the Big Thunder petting zoo. A park employee invited children to pet the animal, while holding its leash. Lena had petted the dog and was just about to leave when the dog attacked her.
Apparently, the shelter from which the dog had been adopted had called the dog “not very social” and even stated that the animal had a history of being aggressive. The lawsuit seeks compensation for the family’s medical costs and emotional trauma as well as punitive damages. Disney officials have not commented yet on this lawsuit.
In California dog attack cases, the owner of a dog is strictly liable for the damage, which that dog causes by biting someone, “regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.” (California Civil Code section 3342.) If the plaintiffs can prove that Disneyland was an owner of the dog, then they would have established liability for the compensatory damages that may be recoverable in their action. This doesn’t seem likely if the Dickerson family is alleging that “…a Disneyland employee brought her…dog to the park”.
Corporations become responsible for the acts of employees if it has knowingly ratified or accepted the benefit of the employee’s actions, like bring a dog into the petting zoo. The alleged use of the dog in the petting zoo and in parades might be consistent with Disneyland acting as if it is the owner of the dog.
Where, as here, the property is a commercial property open to the public which is invited onto the property, the owner is under a duty to frequently inspect their property and is charged with the knowledge of dangerous conditions it would have gained from those inspections. The plaintiffs might prevail if they can establish that Disneyland knew or should have known the dog was in the petting zoo and may be a danger to Disneyland patrons.
“Punitive” damages, also called “exemplary” damages, are intended to punish and make an example of a defendant for despicable conduct that is considered “oppression”, “fraud”, or “malice”. (California Civil Code section 3294.) The plaintiffs would most likely try to prove that Disneyland acted with malice towards the bitten child and her family. “Malice” is “conduct which is intended to cause injury … despicable conduct which is carried on by the defendant with a willful and conscious disregard for the rights or safety of others.” Understandably, it is very difficult but not impossible to carry the very high burden of proof in a negligence case that the defendant acted with malice. The more that the plaintiffs can establish that Disneyland employees knew the dog was vicious and, despite that knowledge, kept the dog in a place where children were exposed to it and put into harm’s way, the more likely it is that the plaintiffs can carry that burden of proof. I doubt they have any real chance at punitive damages.
A very difficult hurdle for the plaintiffs is that in order to hold a corporate employer liable for punitive damages, an “officer, director, or managing agent” of the corporation must direct the despicable conduct, approve the conduct, or ratify the conduct of the employees who have actually performed the despicable conduct. In a far-flung operation such as Disneyland, it may be very hard to find knowledge or approval of a high enough corporate officer to hold Disneyland liable for the punitive damages, even if the plaintiffs are able to establish that the employees were guilty of “oppression”.
I can well imagine the emotional distress the child and her family went through following the dog attack. This is one incident were Disneyland was not the “happiest place on earth.” I suspect that this case will settle when the Dickerson family lawyers and Disneyland’s lawyers make an honest and fair assessment of the facts, consider the law and apply some common sense. Otherwise, twelve dutiful residents of Orange County will resolve it for them.