COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A jury will decide whether a Belmont County sheriff’s deputy should be held responsible for his K-9 companion attacking a woman while off duty during a barbeque at the deputy’s home.
More than four years after Allison Harris was attacked by Xyrem, the K-9 assigned to Belmont County Sheriff’s Deputy Dustin Hilderbrand, the Ohio Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that only a jury can determine whether Hilderbrand was “manifestly” acting outside the scope of his employment before the attack. With the Aug. 30 ruling, the case returns to the original trial court in Jefferson County for further proceedings.
“If any individual, including a police officer, engages in negligent acts that harm another person, like Ms. Harris here, they should be held responsible and their insurance company should pay damages for those acts,” Jamie Bordas, the attorney representing Harris, said in a news release. “Ms. Harris has had significant injuries and surgeries as a result of this dog attack, and she should be compensated for these things.”
In 2019, Harris was a guest at Hilderbrand’s home for an outdoor barbeque. At the barbeque were Hilderbrand’s three dogs and Xyrem, who is trained in narcotics detection and suspect takedown. During the party, Hilderbrand retrieved illegal drugs from his car and hid them around the yard for Xyrem to demonstrate his training, giving Xyrem verbal commands that agitated the dog and caused him to bark.
Later in the party, after both guests and the dogs had dinner, Harris was playing a game in the yard when Xyrem lunged at her, biting her chest. She required multiple surgeries and, according to court filings, is permanently disfigured from the attack.
Harris sued Hilderbrand, who then claimed that immunity granted to political subdivisions and their employees protected him from liability. Although the trial court disagreed, an appellate court sided with Hilderbrand, declaring him immune and dismissing the lawsuit on summary judgment.
Harris’ attorneys argued, in court filings and oral arguments before the Ohio Supreme Court, that Hilderbrand should be held liable because he was off-duty and using Xyrem’s training for entertainment.
“It is difficult to imagine that reasonable minds would find that hosting a party, drinking alcohol, and engaging an unrestrained police dog in commands to entertain guests at a private residence could possibly further the business of the Sheriff’s Department or fall within a police officer’s job duties or description,” her attorneys wrote in their merit brief.
Hilderbrand’s attorneys maintained that, as a K-9 handler responsible for boarding Xyrem in his home, Hilderbrand is always “on the clock,” and Harris’ argument represented a “fundamental misunderstanding of the unique nature of a K-9 deputy and his or her animal.”
Because there is a presumption of immunity, Hilderbrand’s attorneys argued, Harris was required to demonstrate that she needed to prove that his actions were “so egregious as to sever the employment relationship entirely,” or that his actions were malicious, willful or wanton.
The Ohio Supreme Court did not declare whether Hilderbrand was acting outside the scope of his employment. Rather, Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy affirmed Harris’ argument that the question should be posed to a jury.
“Based on the facts in this case, reasonable minds could disagree regarding whether the officer was acting outside the scope of his employment,” Kennedy wrote.