Our sheriff's office has acquired a new "drug dog," and my county commissioners, remembering our last drug dog, (dog passed training class, sheriff's deputy failed; dog chewed up interior of squad car; dog not, um, friendly) are concerned that we might again end up with a less-than-optimal dog that damages the person or property of our local citizens.
Does sovereign immunity protect the county from liability if our dog bites anything or anyone? (I assume we have no indication that the dog had violent tendencies in his past.) The Texas Tort Claims Act does not appear to apply to this situation, but civil law is not my strong suit. Have any other counties faced this issue?
Whether the county can be liable for damage or injury caused by the dog depends, as is so often true, on the facts. If the dog causes injury during its essentially intended use by the handler, chances are the intentional tort exclusion of the Tort Claims Act will operate to retain the county's governmental immunity. See City of Garland v. Rivera, 146 S.W.3d 334, 337-38 (Tex. App.--Dallas 2004, no pet.). If the injury or damage is more purely unintentional, the question becomes much more wide open. In anticipation of potential 42 U.S.C. sec. 1983 claims, the sheriff should consider adopting policies (and train on them and actually implement them) to prevent injuries or damage from use of the dog.
In the end, it's the classic answer to the classic question.
Q. Can we get sued for this?
A. All it takes is just over $200 and a bad attitude to file a lawsuit. So, yes.
Now, whether the lawsuit has merit ... well, that may be a completely different matter.
The starting place is sovereign immunity. My semi-educated opinion is that there is no waiver of immunity in the tort claims act for property damage caused by a dog. The only other waiver of immunity I am aware of is for civil rights violations, which may be cause for concern.
TDC may have some experience with dogs and civil rights claims. I would consider calling the A.G. Tort Litigation Division too.
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