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Dog-bite lawsuit against Sheriff’s Office a rare kind of case

A police dog owned by the Erie County Sheriff’s Office mauled a young girl months ago. She’s on the mend.

The girl’s mother later filed a legal notice against the Sheriff’s Office – and her husband. He’s the deputy who was responsible for the animal.

The episode involves the Okal family of Holland and a 3-year-old German shepherd named Spike.

One day in August, the special vehicle in which Deputy Michael J. Okal transported the dog was on the fritz. So the deputy followed instructions to drive a different patrol car to work and leave Spike home.

During his shift that night, the deputy took a call from his wife, Jennifer Okal. Spike had attacked their 6-year-old daughter.

The deputy raced home to find the girl covered in blood, according to Jennifer Okal’s legal notice. He hurried her into his patrol car and drove her to a fire station, where an ambulance took her the rest of the way to Women & Children’s Hospital for stitches, staples and surgery.

In her notice of claim, Jennifer Okal signaled her intent to sue the Sheriff’s Office and her husband for leaving the dog “inadequately secured” and said they knew or should have known Spike was “vicious, or had propensities to attack and bite people.”

Her notice, drawn up by a lawyer with Cellino & Barnes, goes on to say that she and her daughter deserve compensation for medical expenses, medicines and any lasting injuries that lead to a loss of future income.

It’s common language for personal injury claims. But legal action by a deputy’s family against the deputy and his employer is not common.

Erie County, like most governments, covers its employees in civil suits when the workers legally go about their jobs yet bad things happen. But if the matter advances to a lawsuit, the county could end up compensating a deputy’s family for the deputy’s failings, as alleged by his wife and her lawyer.

It’s a rare set of circumstances, agreed Jeanne Vinal, an attorney with no connection to the matter. But children cannot initiate lawsuits on their own; a parent or guardian must do it for them, she said. When suing the Sheriff’s Office for the acts of its deputies, the deputies must be named, she added.

More importantly, Vinal says, why shouldn’t the girl be compensated for her ordeal? The dog was in the house because of the father’s occupation, and his employer chose to keep its dog in its employee’s home.

“She didn’t choose to have the dog there,” Vinal said of the child. Both parents might have seen this as the best legal approach, she added.

Spike arrived at the Sheriff’s Office in the summer of 2014, roughly a year before the attack. A state grant of about $25,000 paid for the dog and his training in bomb detection through a State Police program. Spike could track, as well. Last June, he helped find five people who skipped out on a taxi fare in Clarence.

While Sheriff Timothy B. Howard’s staff heralded Spike’s arrival and his training, they said little publicly about the tragedy in August.

Jennifer Okal and her daughter had been out of the house on a summer evening, and when they came back home, they let Spike out of his kennel so he could run in the backyard, a task they did “numerous times ... without any incident,” according to a sheriff’s report.

This time, Spike growled, then swiftly turned on the two and clamped his jaws on the child.

The mother tried to pull him off.

“Jennifer instantly started yelling at Spike, pushing, pulling and placing her hands inside of Spike’s mouth in an attempt to draw Spike’s attention towards her,” the report said.

Jennifer Okal eventually wrestled the dog back into his kennel, bruising her knees and hip and receiving a bump over her right eye in the process.

The girl’s wounds were far more serious. Spike had bit her head, face, arms and torso, the report said.

Deputy Okal was at a traffic stop in the same town when his wife called. It was difficult for him to understand her. “She was frantic on the phone, screaming something about their daughter and Spike and to get home immediately,” the report said.

When the deputy arrived, he placed his daughter in his car and called for an ambulance to meet them at the South Wales Fire Station. Then it was off to the hospital in Buffalo, where she was admitted.

An appeal for the child went up days later on “Cards for Cops,” a Facebook page directed at police officers, their families and friends.

“She suffered extensive damage to her face and arm,” the appeal said, and quoted her father in saying the girl was depressed. Followers promised to send items that could cheer her up.

As for the dog, Spike was given back to the kennel company that provided him to the county, said Scott Zylka, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.