In what's hailed/damned as a first-ever ruling in California, the state's Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana recently ruled a Laguna Niguel man who struck a neighbor's miniature Pinscher with a baseball bat must pay the dog's owners for emotional distress. But the ruling filed Friday represents a huge savings for bat swinger John Meihaus Jr., who had been looking at $430,000 in damages for the act against Romeo the dog. The appeals court scaled that down to $160,000. Meihaus' lawyer still says he may appeal to the California Supreme Court.
This is one of those disputes from Orange County suburbia that provides the chatter for family evenings around the imitation fire log. It actually dates back to 2003, when David and Joyce Plotnik moved in next door to the Miehaus house.
Toss on another Duraflame.
The Plotniks kicked things off by building a 6-foot fence between the properties' common boundary. Miehaus sued, and the Plotniks settled in 2007 by moving the fence back three feet. The pact included provisions dictating all disputes were settled, they would mutual restrain themselves and neither family would slander the other.
Good times were not then had by all, as the Plotniks claimed they started finding trash and yard clippings dumped on their side of the fence, sustaining flips of the bird when Meihaus was out jogging and, in the case of Joyce Plotnik, Meihaus staring her down for 20 minutes at the community pool.
Much of the rancor surrounded 15-pound, 12-inch-tall flea collector Romeo, with even Meihaus admitting he once warned the Plotniks to not “let your dog piss on other people's lawns.”
Which leads us to a day in 2009 when David Plotnik went outside with a camera to photograph the latest Meihaus contribution to the back lawn. As he opened a rear gate, Romeo darted out and into the Meihaus yard. Plotnik heard a bark and then squeal and then saw his canine roll “down the slope through the open gate and hit a tree.”
Plotnik walked through the gate to see Meihaus, holding a bat. Meihaus responded that Romeo growled and barked at him but denied hitting the dog, saying he only used the bat to “guide” the pooch back to the Plotnik yard. He advised his neighbor to “be more courteous and get your dogs to stop barking.”
Later that same day, the sons of Plotnik's neighbors, Greg and John Meihaus III, called Plotnik “fatty” and “punk ass bitch,” threatened to “kick [his] ass” and “kill” him and also wondered aloud, “Why don't you suck my dick?”
Admitting they said those things, the Meihaus sons claimed Plotnik also insulted them.
The Plotniks sued in Orange County Superior Court over the verbal attack against them and the physical attack against Romeo. Meihaus sued back, claiming the Plotnik complaint violated the earlier fence settlement.
Validating a variety of claims, including assault, trespass, actual damages and emotional distress, a jury first awarded David Plotnik $175,600 and Joyce Plotnik $255,210, based on the actions of Meihaus and his sons. Meihaus sought a new trial to reduce what he felt were excessive damages, but Judge Sheila Fell reduced the total by $80,000 after the Plotniks accepted a remittitur.
Essentially, a three-member panel of judges agreed that the Plotniks are entitled to damages for emotional distress due to the actions of Meihaus, with Judge William Rylaarsdam, who wrote the opinion, citing an 1889 California Supreme Court ruling that found
“there are no other domestic animals to which the owner or his family
can become more keenly attached” than dogs.
But the judges also considered Fell's award too high because it included compensation for the “aggressive and threatening” words of the Meihaus boys, who actually posed no immediate physical threat to David Plotnik. Also rejected was the Plotniks' quest for negligence damages and greater compensation for
emotional distress, with Rylaarsdam contending the jury had
essentially double-dipped when it came to the emotional distress award,
compensating the couple for the trespass and the assault when both
stemmed from the same incident.
By this time in the case, Meihaus now admits he indeed struck Romeo with the bat, and the Rylaarsdam opinion rejected the neighbors claim that he did so in self-defense and that he deserves a new trial.
Included in the awards that were upheld were Romeo's $2,600 in medical bills and $209 for a stroller used transport the pooch around during recovery.
Bet it will be heaven on earth in that neighborhood now.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.