Local News

Friday, Jan 10 2014 11:57 AM

Judge to decide who pays legal costs in raccoon attack case

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Ian Smith, right, listens to his attorney Greg Muir in the hallways of Kern County Superior Court following the hearing where the Kern County Superintendent of Schools is trying recoup more than $206,000 in legal costs related to Smith's lawsuit over a raccoon attack at CALM.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Michael C. Kellar represented the Kern County Superintendent of Schools trying to recoup legal costs related to Ian Smith's lawsuit over a raccoon attack at CALM.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Kern County Superior Court judge Sidney Chapin listens to Ian Smith's attorney, Greg Muir, during the morning hearing Friday where the Kern County Superintendent of Schools is trying recoup more than $206,000 in legal costs related to Smith's lawsuit over a raccoon attack at CALM.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

The question before raccoon attack victim Ian Smith is not whether he'll be paying legal costs in connection with his failed lawsuit against the Kern County of Superintendent of Schools office, but how much the bill will amount to.

Smith said it doesn't really matter. He can't pay anything.

"Whether it's $200,000 or $200, they've already financially ruined and bankrupt me," Smith said following a court hearing Friday.

KCSOS is seeking $200,304.56 from Smith to cover the costs of two trials after Smith refused a settlement offer. KCSOS runs the California Living Museum, where Smith was attacked by a raccoon that had escaped its enclosure in 2010.

The first trial ended in a hung jury, and a jury sided with KCSOS in a second trial in October 2013.

KCSOS attorney Michael C. Kellar told Judge Sidney P. Chapin that extensive costs have been incurred by the office, and nothing in the papers filed by Smith's attorney establishes that the fees are unreasonable.

He noted that KCSOS voluntarily paid $75,478.65 in Smith's medical bills, then made him two separate settlement offers.

The first offer was for about $49,000, the second for $125,000. Smith rejected both.

"Those two trials were at (Smith's) behest," Kellar said. "The defendants were forced to represent themselves and counter the claims."

Chapin said the decision before the court involves balancing Smith's economic status against the costs the lawsuit has placed on taxpayers.

"Every taxpayer in this county has paid for this process," he said.

Chapin will likely issue a ruling within a week.

Kellar said after the hearing that there's no doubt Smith was injured, although there's some dispute as to the extent of his injuries. The question is one of liability, and Smith was unable to sway two juries that KCSOS was at fault.

Staff made a thorough search for the raccoon after realizing it had escaped its enclosure. They couldn't find it, and believed the animal had left the area. They didn't close the museum because there's nothing to stop other animals from coming onto CALM grounds.

Smith said he and his then-8-year-old daughter were visiting the zoo on Jan. 31, 2010, when he spotted the raccoon. He said the animal was between 100 to 150 feet away, and he took out his cell phone to take a picture of it to show zoo staff.

Smith said the raccoon charged at him, biting through a finger and also biting his foot and leg. He sued, seeking almost $2 million for wage loss, hospital and medical expenses and general damage.

Kellar said Smith's story doesn't add up. He said experts in the field of animal behavior testified that there has not been a recorded instance of a raccoon attacking a person who's more than 100 feet away.

He also said there's evidence Smith kicked at the animal.

If Smith saw the animal from a distance, he could have just left the area and informed zoo staff, Kellar said. There was no need to take a picture.

"Everyone knows what a raccoon looks like," he said.

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