Parents of Leverett's Chapel boy mauled by dogs seek changes to law Parents of boy mauled by dogs seek changes to law
Sept. 20, 2010 at 6:45 p.m.
T he mother of a child who was mauled to death last year by dogs said Monday the $7 million verdict she won is more about message than money.
"I don't want any parent to go through what we went through," Serenia Clinton said three days after a civil, non-criminal jury in Henderson found dog owners Christi and Rick George of Leverett's Chapel negligent in the death of Clinton's 10-year-old son, Justin.
Clinton and her attorney are working to push a "Justin's Law" to tighten regulations on dangerous breeds in Texas.
Jurors in Fourth District Judge Clay Gossett's court awarded Clinton a $7 million verdict against her fellow Leverett's Chapel residents. The couple owned a pit bull and American-pit bull mix that broke free of their fenced yard and attacked Clinton as he rode his skateboard June 19, 2009.
The mother filed suit a year ago, supported by her husband and Justin's step-father, Kevin.
"It's not about the money," she said. "It's mainly to send a message out, and we hope the verdict - the goal is to send a message out that people need to be more responsible. They're really not family pets, but if you want to have one make sure you have it penned."
Clinton attorney Cynthia Kent said Monday the fence enclosing the dogs that attacked Justin was inadequate. Parts of the fence reached four feet tall, but not all of it, she said, calling the entire structure rickety.
"He was just walking down the street," Kent said. "They got out and just attacked him."
She said it was not likely her client would see much of the financial award.
"They won't receive any of the money," Kent said. "The Georges had no insurance. This was not about the money at all. This was about justice for Justin, and also about sending a strong message that these types of dangerous dogs - there's got to be something done to see that if people keep these dangerous dogs they've got to have high fences and strong fences."
The Georges face charges of criminally negligent homicide in Gossett's court on Oct. 18, his court coordinator said Monday.
Tyler attorney John Heike, who represented the Georges, issued a statement Monday saying his clients were hamstrung by the pending criminal trial.
"The Georges made several requests that the criminal trial occur before the civil trial," Heike wrote. "But the court refused. As a result, the Georges were unable to testify on the civil case other than confirming they owned the dogs and lived in Rusk County. This allowed the jury to assume that any answer would be unfavorable to Ricky and Christy George."
The statement also says any public discussion of elements destined for next month's criminal trial could affect chances of selecting an impartial criminal jury. It did not indicate whether the couple will appeal last week's civil verdict, and Heike was not available for comment after releasing the statement.
Kent and her client said they hoped the jury's message would inspire legislation to at least control dangerous breeds.
"It was a horrible, horrible week," Clinton said of reliving the tragedy in the week-long trial. "But when the verdict came in it gave me some closure. And hopefully we can take it higher in that we're trying to get a 'Justin's Law.' I would love to ban them, but I want something saying (owners) must have insurance and high enough fences, and must have padlocks, chains, anything so they can't get to our children and elderly, or anybody."
Texas Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, said Monday he would welcome legislation aimed at curbing ownership of dog breeds deemed dangerous to people, though he added he'd prefer city councils and county commissioners act first. Berman and other lawmakers will meet in Austin in January for their biennial session.
"I don't think it would be a hard sell," he said. "We've got too many statistics, too many instances across the state. I don't know of a legislator that hasn't had a pit bull incident in their district. Sometimes, they seem to be so placid and so peaceful, but they can turn on you at any time."
Legislation could include fence standards and leash requirements, he said.