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Friday, Nov 16 2012 02:16 AM

Jury unable to reach verdict in raccoon attack trial

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

A jury hearing the civil lawsuit against a zoo over a 2010 raccoon attack was unable to return a verdict Friday and the judge declared a mistrial.

Ian Smith filed the lawsuit against the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, which owns and operates the California Living Museum, a zoo specializing in native California wildlife.

The lawsuit filed in Kern County Superior Court accused KCSOS of negligence after a raccoon that had escaped from his enclosure attacked Smith in front of his autistic, then 8-year-old daughter.

After tussling with the raccoon for about five minutes, Smith pinned the animal to the ground until help arrived. The raccoon was euthanized. It tested negative for rabies.

Smith sued for more than $25,000 for wage loss, hospital and medical expenses and general damage, according to court documents. The raccoon bit through Smith's finger and also bit his foot and leg.

The jury's verdict form contained more than a dozen questions. Before jurors could get to all of them, they got hung up on the question of whether the zoo was in a dangerous condition at the time of the incident, said KCSOS attorney Michael Kellar.

The jury was split 7-5 as of the last vote on that question, Kellar said.

It was reasonable for jurors to question whether KCSOS was at fault, Kellar said.

"By the admission of their own animal expert, a former curator at the Los Angeles Zoo, this was an extremely rare occurrence and would not have been easily foreseen," Kellar said.

Neither Smith nor his attorney, Greg Muir, could be reached for comment, but Muir released a statement Friday.

The jury originally concluded, by a 9-3 vote in favor of Smith, that a dangerous condition existed at CALM at the time of the raccoon attack, he said.

Numerous jurors were polarized on several other questions presented to them, and ultimately the vote changed to 7-5, causing the mistrial, Muir said.

A minimum of nine out of 12 votes was required for a verdict.

"Plaintiffs had presented evidence that even though the raccoon had been previously identified as 'aggressive' and had bit CALM's own animal keepers, CALM failed to notify patrons that the raccoon had ripped open his cage and its whereabouts were unknown," Muir said. "The raccoon had been donated for rehabilitation to the wild only one month before the incident, with a documented history of suspected neurological problems."

The case will be re-tried at a time to be selected by the court and the parties in the future, he added.

The jury had deliberated for two days after a trial that began on Oct. 30.

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