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Katrina dogs case back to court

Published January 29, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG — The legal saga over ownership of two dogs rescued and adopted out after Hurricane Katrina returned to court Monday, with the sides trying to resolve several issues before the scheduled April trial.

By day’s end, Circuit Judge Henry Andringa dismissed one claim by the defense, and is expected to rule on other motions in the next few days.

Steven and Dorreen Couture, of St. Bernard Parish, La., filed suit in July to reclaim two dogs displaced during the hurricane and adopted out to Hillsborough Prosecutor Pam Bondi and Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin. The suit also names the Humane Society of Pinellas, which adopted out the dogs.

The Coutures eventually tracked the dogs — a St. Bernard and a shepherd mix — to Tampa Bay. But by then, Bondi had adopted the St. Bernard and Rineker the shepherd mix.

Bondi has argued that the St. Bernard was sick and improperly cared for; Rineker contended she adopted an abandoned dog in good faith.

On Monday, Andringa dismissed one of Rineker’s defense claims that she was a bona fide purchaser for value of the shepherd mix, and didn’t know the Coutures had an interest in the dog.

In court documents, Murray Silverstein, who represents the Coutures, said, “Because Rineker neither paid a value in acquiring plaintiffs’ dog Nila nor adopted the dog without notice of the plaintiffs’ adverse interest, there are no legal grounds for her third affirmative defense and same must be dismissed as a matter of law.”

Silverstein said the judge’s decision leaves only the defensive claim that the Coutures abandoned the dogs. But Jeff Brown, who represents Rineker, said Andringa’s decision doesn’t mean the points can’t be argued at trial, and he “absolutely” will raise them.

Brown later argued the Coutures’ suit should be dismissed because the Humane Society had police powers over the dogs, that  the shelter has the authority to become the owner of an animal once it is impounded.

He said after an attempt to contact the original owners is made in 10 days, the shelter has the right to adopt out the dog or have it euthanized.

Silverstein said there is no proof the Humane Society made an attempt to contact the Coutures.

Andringa didn’t rule on Brown’s motion for dismissal.

The Coutures were in court Monday, making the trip from Louisiana with their two grandchildren.  “I never expected this to go on like this,” Steven Couture said after the hearing. “But I’m never giving up. They’re my dogs.”

[Last modified January 29, 2007, 20:34:52]

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