The Recorder is a leading, nationally recognized legal publication. This article appeared in The Recorder on December 27, 1999, and several web sites, such as CalLaw. In August 2000, this article was voted the best feature story in California by a publication with less than 10,000 circulation.
Selma Taylor was a client of Kenneth Phillips. Her case was settled for $95,000 in May 2000.
A Legal Career Goes to the Dogs
L.A. solo represents the human victims of canine attacks
By Mike McKee
[The Recorder, Monday, December 27, 1999]
Opening the front door to her quiet Oakland home, Selma Taylor worriedly tells a visitor to come inside quickly.
“The dogs are loose,” the 40-ish grandmother says nervously while fiddling with a cell phone.
The “dogs” are two Rottweilers owned by Taylor’s next-door neighbor, the same dogs that Taylor says have attacked her twice in the last 15 months. She claims to have been bitten at her doorstep in August 1998 and to have been knocked down at the edge of her yard last May, escaping serious injury only by jumping into a passing pickup truck.
“It’s a game of chance for me to get from my front door to my car every day,” she says.
As it turns out this day, Taylor, executive director of a nonprofit agency in Oakland, apparently has seen the wrong dogs: The neighbor’s canines are secure in their yard. But it doesn’t matter. Taylor’s terrified by the big animals and wants them taken away or destroyed.
Enter Kenneth Phillips, a 48-year-old Los Angeles solo practitioner who filed suit on Taylor’s behalf in August. Phillips long ago saw his career going to the dogs — dog law, that is — and just might be the dog-bite king of the legal world.
He represents people all over California who have been attacked by dogs and is the proud founder of dogbitelaw.com, a year-old Web site — packed with the doggonedest facts and figures — that has become a global hit.
And while dog-bite law sounds like a legal practice that might have fared better in Medieval Europe, Phillips is a thoroughly modern man. He’s a techster who can hold his own on a synthesizer, lets a computer program of his own design run his office, and meets his dog-bitten clients in an ultra-modern high-rise in L.A.’s Century City.
He might not be handling Silicon Valley-style litigation, but Phillips manages to be happy and make a living at an arcane practice partly because there’s no end of clients.
“There are 50 million dogs in this country,” says Phillips, who estimates that more than 60 of his 100-plus active cases are dog-related. “And they are causing a hell of a lot of damage.”
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that dogs bite more than 4.7 million people a year in the U.S., with more than 800,000 attacks serious enough to warrant medical care and more than half involving children. The CDC also reports that 304 Americans died from dog attacks between 1979 and 1996. And insurers estimate doling out more than $100 million annually to dog-bite victims.
“I get, on the average, five inquiries a day pertaining to dog-bite litigation,” Phillips says. “And that can be anything from a legislator asking me a question about what the law is or should be, all the way to a dog-bite victim, all the way to somebody whose pet has been killed by another dog.”
A random sample of e-mail sent to Phillips’ Web site reveals inquiries from the mother of a dog-bite victim in Alabama, an insurer from an unidentified locale seeking information about dog-owner liability, lawyers with separate dog-bite cases in Vermont and South Africa, a high school student in Germany researching a science fair project, college students studying dog law in England, and a North Carolina animal-control officer who gushingly calls Phillips’ Web site “undoubtedly the best . . . regarding this very sensitive issue.”
“It’s an amazing cross-section of people,” Phillips says.
Most aren’t looking for representation, just advice, which Phillips dispenses for free. But Phillips has gotten a few clients, including Selma Taylor, from the site.
A friend of Taylor’s found Phillips online, and Taylor chose him as her lawyer after making contact by telephone.
“What impressed me was his understanding of California law. That’s what I needed,” she states. “And he’s responsive. He takes time to explain the issues. I feel like I’m being taken care of.”
NO DOG-EAT-DOG WORLD
Phillips is a big man. Standing six-feet, six-inches tall and weighing 255 pounds, he could be an imposing figure, if not for his jovial nature and the laid-back style he acquired growing up in L.A.
Though he meets clients in a stuffy conference room in Century City, Phillips actually works out of the mellow, hacienda-style home in Rancho Park that he shares with his wife, Cecile Munoz, an executive recruiter in the financial realm. A water fountain babbles outside his work window, and his backyard — where he plots legal strategy — is home to six pet rabbits, a few wild squirrels, a pool of koi fish, and trees bearing lemons, apricots, peaches and plums.
“I use nature to inspire me in my battles with the real world,” he says. “It makes you more effective, and you won’t die when you’re 45.”
Ironically, Phillips owns no dogs. He’s a self-proclaimed “cat person,” who has one feline inside his house, three strays outside and a joke “Beware of Dog” sign on his front porch. But he says he loves dogs. He owned three pooches — one a mutt named Tracy — when he was younger.
A 1976 graduate of the UCLA School of Law who went solo in 1993, Phillips never intended to be a personal injury lawyer, let alone a dog-law expert. He practiced litigation and entertainment law at a handful of firms, but retained an interest in PI after getting $200,000 in his first case for a cousin hurt by a printing press.
It wasn’t long before a dog-bite victim showed up at his doorstep and a niche practice was born. He still does entertainment law and serves as a judge pro tempore for the small-claims division of L.A. Municipal Court, but his first love is dog law.
Of course, he’s gotten a few gibes from fellow lawyers over the years, but he doesn’t really care.
“They’ll usually say, ‘Dog-bite law? Why dog-bite law?’ and I’ll say, ‘Strict liability, dude.’ That is a very meaningful criteria,” he says, “because it means we have a better shot at getting a fair recovery for someone.”
In other words, unless there’s some extenuating circumstance, “the owner pays all damages” in California, he says, if his or her dog bites someone.
One initial Phillips skeptic was San Francisco criminal defense lawyer Stuart Hanlon, who tracked Phillips down after a female friend was bitten by a dog in L.A.
“Before I met him, I thought it was a joke — someone specializing in dog-bite cases,” the Tamburello, Hanlon & Waggener partner says. “It was like something from Saturday Night Live. But he certainly appeared competent to me. He asked the right questions, or I wouldn’t have referred her [to him].”
That friend, Candace Killman, had been attacked by an akita while visiting a nephew who worked in a beauty salon. “It was out of the blue,” she says. “[The dog] just up and bit both of my eyes and ripped my left eyelid — a three-quarter-inch tear. It was pretty gruesome.”
Killman, an interior designer in Larkspur, sued after the dog’s owner refused to pay her medical bills, and she was quite happy with the $20,000 Phillips got in a settlement.
Of course, that’s one of Phillips’ smaller recoveries. In his cases with more serious injuries, insurers have ponied up bigger bucks, which he highlights in colorfully named stories on his Web site. There’s the “pit bull attack” that settled for $200,000, the “Christmas party case” that resolved for $290,000 and the “going-away party case” that ended for $300,000.
The Christmas case involved a particularly violent incident. A client, who Phillips prefers not to name, was attacked by a German shepherd while visiting a Bay Area friend on Christmas Night 1992.
“The dog ripped off the woman’s nose and ate it,” Phillips says. The woman, who lives in New York, has had several surgeries, but remains scarred.
The case was especially egregious, Phillips adds, because the dog owner had denied any previous aggressive tendencies by his pet. Phillips discovered, however, that only three months before the attack, the same animal had badly bitten the nose and cheek of a veterinary technician in Hayward.
“Until then, [my client] considered herself the victim of an unavoidable accident,” Phillips says. “Now she has had to face the truth — namely that the defendant needlessly exposed her to attack, by failing to lock up the dog or warn the guests.”
The serious nature of dog attacks is underlined by all the attention given them by veterinarians, insurers and legislators.
State Farm Insurance Co. provides an online consumer safety guide about dogs, including a dog-bite quiz for children.
Students at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine produced a dog-bite prevention book — Fido! Friend or Foe? — that has sold more than 4 million copies.
Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation in August that lets prosecutors charge dog owners with a misdemeanor or a felony if their animal attacks someone, depending on the severity of the injury and whether the owner knew the dog had a propensity for violence. Called “Cody’s Law,” the legislation was named after 11-year-old Cody Fox who was mauled by a pack of dogs in Tehama County in September 1998.
And even as recently as Nov. 24, the Fresno-based Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled in People v. Henderson, 99 C.D.O.S. 9291, that pit-bull terriers can be considered deadly weapons.
Pit bulls are among the 10 breeds of dog that CDC officials have identified as the most dangerous. Others include rottweilers, German shepherds, akitas and even chow chows.
But one thing Phillips says he’s learned is not to pre-judge any particular breed of dog, but rather to evaluate the owners of individual animals.
“Any dog — literally any dog — can be a bad dog if the owner is a bad owner or the breeder is a bad breeder,” he says. “I’ve heard of killer Labradors. On the other hand, any dog associated with a bad breed can be a good dog if the owner is a good owner or the breeder is a good breeder.”
It also depends on the individual circumstances. In his most celebrated case, Phillips went after male model Fabio Lanzoni for negligence on behalf of a Canadian actress whose teeth were knocked out when Fabio’s Great Danes leaped into her face as she leaned downward. Phillips argued that jurors should have been allowed to decide whether Fabio should have known his dogs were in an excitable state because he had riled them up while playing with them earlier.
“The point I was trying to make in that litigation was that Fabio should be responsible for making his dogs crazy,” Phillips says.
The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled against Phillips in May 1997, but not before he earned the respect of his legal opponent, Richard Charnley.
“I enjoyed him immensely. He’s got a good sense of humor, he’s a gentleman and he’s a good litigator,” says Charnley, now of counsel at Santa Monica’s Nelsen, Thompson, Pegue & Thornton. “If someone called up and said their kid had just been mauled by a vicious animal, I’d refer them to Ken.”
Phillips likes hearing that, because he really likes his work and feels he provides a legitimate service to his clients. But he frets about providing comparatively superficial aid to maimed individuals.
“I can’t give them their nose back. I can’t take their scars away,” he says. “I can only get them money.”
He should take some comfort, though, in clients like Selma Taylor, who says money is secondary to her.
“My issue is having the dogs removed. I don’t want to live in fear,” she explains. “And I felt like [Phillips] had some compassion. There was some concern about my well-being. And I needed that.”
(c) NLP IP Company, Monday, December 27, 1999