Judge awards $259,000 to Stonington dog bite victim

Stonington -- A dog-walker who was seriously injured five years ago after being attacked by a sheltie mix named Toby on Cutler Street was awarded more than $259,000 last week following a trial in New London Superior Court.

Jacqueline Poisson, 73, who has since moved to another town, had sued the family that owned Toby, claiming that under Connecticut law, the owner or keepers of a dog are strictly liable for injuries caused by the dog unless the person was trespassing, harassing or tormenting the dog.

She had sued Toby's owners, Elizabeth and Dwayne Schramm and Elizabeth Schramm's parents, Jose and Margarida Gonsalves. The Gonsalves own the home they all live in and were insured by the Safeco/Liberty Mutual company, which claimed the Gonsalves' were not liable. The trial took place in September before Judge Timothy D. Bates.

"During the trial they tried to prove the Gonsalves weren't Toby's owners or keepers, and then the insurance company wouldn't be liable for anything," said Poisson's attorney, Isabel V. Del Vecchio of the North Stonington law firm of Stephen M. Reck & Scott D. Camassar. She said Toby was a family dog who had lived at the home for five years.

The judge decided for the plaintiff, issuing a nine-page memorandum in the case on Nov. 2 following a four-day bench trial. Bates awarded Poisson $9,583 for medical costs not covered by insurance and $250,000 in non-economic damages for her pain and suffering.

"Judge Bates was very attentive," said Del Vecchio. "He saw that in cases like this, the medical bills don't really show the true damages."

Poisson, a retired social worker, lived independently before the incident, but has since had to move in with a daughter, according to Del Vecchio.

Poisson was walking her Labrador mix, Isabelle, on Cutler Street on March 19, 2012, when she saw Elizabeth Schramm with the family's other dog, Bella, a Yorkie, across the street and decided to go the other way, Del Vecchio said. Poisson's dog was barking as she walked past the Gonsalves/Schramm home, and Toby escaped from the Schramm's son, then 12, who was holding him on a leash in the yard. The dog crawled under a privet hedge and attacked Poisson.

"He goes right for my client and bites her in the abdomen and vulva, knocking her down," said Del Vecchio. "She had an orange-sized lump on her head. She's couldn't get up on her own."

Dwayne Schramm drove Poisson to the hospital, where she was treated for what Judge Bates described in his decision as "gruesome injuries." She suffered a concussion, and as time went on, had problems with memory and taking care of herself. She moved to the Putnam area so her daughter could take care of her, and more recently is living with another daughter in the New Haven area, Del Vecchio said.

Toby, who attacked the animal control officer after the incident, was euthanized, according to Del Vecchio, who said the dog also had previously attacked two other people. Animal Control Officer Rae Jean Davis testified at the trial that the animal control office had been notified of the prior attacks and warned the owners to keep the dog closer to themselves if anyone else was around. She also testified that the law requires a dog to be kept under control by a responsible adult, Del Vecchio said.

"The defendants also attempted to make the claim the Ms. Poisson was tormenting their dog because Isabelle was barking," Del Vecchio wrote in an email. "A dog barking while walking with its owner legally in a public street does not rise to the level required under the statute of tormenting. This, along with their other defenses were ridiculous and without a legal leg to stand on."

Attorney Michael Carreira from the Wallingford office of Meehan, Roberts, Turret & Rosenbaum represented the defendants. A woman who answered the phone at firm Monday afternoon said the firm would not be commenting.

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This article corrects the name of the animal control officer.

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