Katrina dog case moves from talk to a trial date

Abandonment is the key question in the case.

Published April 18, 2007

After more than a year of legal maneuvering, a Pinellas County judge Tuesday set the week of July 9 to start a closely watched jury trial over the ownership of two dogs brought to the Tampa Bay area after Hurricane Katrina.

The central question for the jury will not be who will better care for the dogs or whom the dogs prefer, but whether the owners abandoned their dogs in a natural disaster.

The owners, Steven and Dorreen Couture of St. Bernard Parish, La., who are bringing the suit, say they didn't. The adopted owners say they did.

"Abandonment is something they have to demonstrate, and it's their burden of proving that the Coutures relinquished their rights," said Murray Silverstein, the Coutures' attorney. "I have been asking for proof in support of that and they have nothing."

But Camille Godwin, the attorney representing Pam Bondi of Tampa, the adopter of a St. Bernard, said the Coutures indeed abandoned it and another dog, a shepherd mix, that was adopted by a Dunedin woman.

"They left the dogs to their own devices and passed the title on to another person who took it on in good faith," Godwin said. "Our position is the jury can look at the case and decide that the dog was abandoned."

Pinellas County Judge Henry J. Andringa has set the trial nearly a year after the Coutures sued Bondi, the other adopter Rhonda Rineker, and the Humane Society of Pinellas County in an effort to have the dogs returned. And it comes nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina sent nose-high water into Coutures' home, destroying it.

Though Steven Couture rode the storm out with the dogs, he was forced to leave them behind during the evacuation. Eventually a family member took the dogs to a local rescue shelter, where they were left under the Coutures' name but eventually turned over to the Pinellas Humane Society.

The Coutures tracked the dogs to the Tampa area in January 2006. Bondi had adopted the St. Bernard from the Humane Society on Oct. 14, 2005. Rineker of Dunedin adopted the shepherd mix two weeks later.

Proving that the Coutures abandoned the dogs could be a tough sell since the court has ruled they are property, say some legal experts.

"If my wife gives me a watch with my name on the back of it and I drop it in my yard, you can't say it's yours and sell it," said Russ Mead, the general counsel for Best Friend Animal Society based out of Utah, who last month helped a Katrina victim get a dog back in a similar case.

Patricia Duming, 58, weathered Hurricane Katrina but was airlifted from her roof on Sept. 9, 2005, and was not allowed to take Pablo, her 2-year-old terrier mix, with her.

"Judges are finding that people never abandoned their animals, therefore they didn't give up their property rights," Mead said.

But the defense is expected to argue the dogs were abandoned by the Coutures when they left the animals unattended in their home.

There's a chance the trial might still be derailed: Silverstein in February filed a request asking Pinellas County Judge Henry J. Andringa to end the legal proceedings and to have the dogs returned to the Coutures or placed with the Pinellas County Animal Services Department. He said the animals were never abandoned. A hearing on the request is scheduled for April 25.

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at (727)445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.