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The Matassini Law Firm, P.A. Your trusted legal advisors since 1976



A family filed a lawsuit on behalf of their 5-year-old daughter, Gabriella, after she was mauled by an “emotional support” pit-bull at a terminal in a Portland, Oregon airport. The lawsuit names the dog’s owner, Alaska Airlines, and the municipal agency Port of Portland as defendants and accuses each of them with negligence since the pit-bull was allowed access through the airport terminal without having first followed safety guidelines, including being in a crate. The traumatic incident for the young girl is just one of numerous high-profile allegations of bad support-animal behavior at airports as airlines and the federal government have scrambled to respond to a growing pile of complaints, ranging from poor potty training to nasty bites.

The episodes have proliferated over the past two years, fueling a debate over how the animals should be regulated while traveling. In June 2017, a 70-pound emotional support dog bit a man in the face just as he sat down in his window seat on a Delta Air Lines flight departing Atlanta, leaving him with 28 stitches. In February 2018, another emotional support dog chomped at a little girl’s forehead on a Southwest Airlines flight departing Phoenix, leaving her with only a scrape but causing panic.

In Gabriella’s case, she had to undergo tear-duct surgery, leaving her with permanent scars, her attorney, Chad Stavley, told The Washington Post. The pit bull severed her tear duct and disfigured her upper lip, leaving a chunk of it missing, according to a graphic photo of her injuries provided by Stavley. A long streak of red leading from the corner of her eye drips down her cheek.

Stavley said he hopes the lawsuit, filed Monday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, will push airports and airlines to strictly enforce the policies surrounding emotional support animals that most created in response to the 2017 and 2018 dog bites. The new rules intend to clamp down on fraudulent emotional support animals or service animals — people’s house pets disguised as helpers — while also making sure the animals that people really need are kept away from other passengers as much as possible.

Stavley said he plans to investigate whether the dog that bit Gabriella was a legitimate emotional support dog. The dog’s owner, Michelle Brannan, claims that it was, according to the lawsuit. She did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday night. It’s unclear if she still owns the dog. According to a December 2017 report from KATU 2 News, the dog was quarantined at an animal shelter for 10 days following the attack, and the owner was cited by police for failing to crate the dog.

“There’s a lot of abuse of this emotional support animal situation,” Stavley said, “and folks who have legitimate service animals — people who are blind and need guide dogs and the like — are kind of getting thrown into the same boat [as emotional support animals]. It shines a poor light on those folks.”

The Port of Portland and Alaska Airlines, which Brannan and the Gonzalez family were flying that day, both declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

The concerns from the airlines also prompted the Transportation Department to review its own rules for service and support animals last year. The agency intended to crack down on the “fraudulent use” of animals who aren’t really service animals and to make sure measures are in place to prevent badly behaved pets from boarding flights. It has yet to issue a final rule change.

In the meantime, Stavley said Gabriella will not be boarding any flights anytime soon. The girl developed a fear of airports, he said, as well as a fear of petting dogs.

If you or a loved one has been injured by an emotional support animal contact The Matassini Law Firm, P.A. for a free consultation. Tampa injury lawyers Nicholas G. Matassini and Nicholas M. Matassini are both AV Rated by Martindale-Hubbell. Since 1976, our law firm has been protecting the rights of the injured and their families throughout Florida in State and Federal courts.

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