Fighting back tears, Kait Dowling and Tom Minix said their beloved 9-month-old puppy, Leia, died last month due to negligence by a Point Breeze doggy day care. They allege the black Lab/bulldog/Staffordshire terrier mix darted through two open doorways at Groom & Board that should have been closed, and was fatally struck by a car on Oct. 17.
“For Leia, there’s no accountability for what happened to her there,” said Dowling, 33, a financial consultant who was on a business trip in Texas when she got the news. “Things were not followed that we were ensured were in place to keep her safe. We’re devastated.”
“We loved our dog,” said Minix, 33, who works in networking security. “We called Leia our daughter. She was everything to us. For my job, I got 10 days of paid time off this year, and all 10 days were used to care for her in some way.”
Dowling and Minix, who have been together for 13 years, filed a lawsuit Friday against Groom & Board — not for their pain, they said, but to hold the two-year-old business accountable and to warn potential customers.
The lawsuit, filed in Common Pleas Court, seeks damages in excess of $100,000, claiming the business is guilty of negligence and consumer fraud for letting Leia escape. At issue is a door that the couple’s Center City lawyer says was broken.
“The fact that one of their doors was broken screams that there’s a safety issue here,” said the attorney, Jordan Strokovsky.
Courtney Campuzano, owner of Groom & Board, denied that a door was broken. Leia escaped, she said, when a couple who had arrived to pick up their dog opened the front door and an interior gate while a second door was propped open. Another dog also ran out and was recovered unharmed, she said.
“It wasn’t a situation that I could have planned for. My staff couldn’t have handled it better,” Campuzano said. “I immediately ran to get my car to take Leia to the vet. We did CPR until we got there.”
Since Leia’s death, a new internal door and wall have been built separating dogs from the two layers of external doors, Campuzano said, adding that she had never previously lost a dog since opening the business in 2018 or in 15 years as a groomer.
“Leia was here every day,” Campuzano said. “We were pretty close to Leia. Worst moment of my career, for sure, and one of the worst moments altogether. Everyone is sorry this happened. It’s traumatizing to all involved.”
Strokovsky said this is his first lawsuit filed on behalf of pet owners. “I care deeply about animals, and I’m also involved with a local shelter,” he said. “That’s a good reason why I’m involved — to help these two get justice, because Leia was a part of their family.”
Matthew Liebman of the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund said courts are catching up with the belief that pets are family, not property. “It’s becoming more and more common,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the evolving social status of pets over the last few decades.”
In a 2012 Colorado case, a woman was awarded $65,118 for the death of her dog, who was hit by a car when a maid-service employee let her escape through a door that was not supposed to be open.
But in most states, including Pennsylvania, animals are considered property, and courts have shown little sympathy to owners who sue for the loss of their pets due to the actions of humans.
In 1988, Superior Court ruled against the owners of a dog who died after an animal hospital performed unnecessary surgery due to a mix-up of X-rays. That court found that under Pennsylvania law, a dog is personal property and therefore there can be no recovery for loss of companionship due to the animal’s death.
» READ MORE: Couple sue Pa. dog breeder under N.J. law
In 1993, the same court cited the earlier ruling in rejecting a complaint filed by a couple claiming intentional infliction of emotional distress resulting from a veterinarian’s fatal beating of their dog because he was having difficulty getting the dog from the basement recovery room to the upstairs pickup room. The court held that intentional infliction of emotional distress cannot legally be found in a veterinarian’s behavior toward an animal.
Strokovsky said that while Pennsylvania law considers a dog property, not all property is the same. “A dog is not a shoe,” the lawyer said. “There is a unique and intrinsic value to having a dog.”