The gruesome death of a beloved pet at an upscale boarding facility for dogs has left its owner distraught and grieving. Now, her lawsuit over the demise of the 4.5-pound teacup Yorkie — attacked by a Labrador mix puppy — seeks to prove that animals are far more than property.
Falen LaPonzina filed a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court last week against Wagtime Too, which operates doggy day care and boarding facilities in Washington. She alleges that the business was negligent in allowing her dog, Dax, to be kept alongside another canine four times its weight. She is seeking $150,000 in damages.
But LaPonzina said she wants more than money. She wants the courts to recognize the role pets play in the lives of their owners. She said the 12-year-old Dax, with a giant underbite, was a friendly and loyal companion who had been a constant through her transient twenties and thirties.
"I had no idea when I dropped my dog off there I would never see him again," LaPonzina said. "Yorkies live to be 18 to 20 years old. He had many good years left."
Wagtime Too has denied that the business was negligent in its care of the dog. Lisa Schreiber, a co-owner, said the dog's death was a "freak accident." She said that an employee had been watching all the dogs and that by the time he saw the lab mix attacking Dax, it was too late.
LaPonzina said she traveled to Alaska in July, dropping off Dax at Wagtime Too, which advertises itself as a cage-free facility. There are two locations in the District, where owners can board their pets for $55 a night. LaPonzina, a 36-year-old lawyer, and Dax had been regulars at the company's facilities, first in Shaw and later in Navy Yard, since 2010.
LaPonzina said she did not check her phone during her week-long cruise. But when she got off the ship in Canada, she found missed calls and messages from Wagtime Too indicating there had been an emergency. Dax was dead.
An 18-pound Labrador mix puppy had picked up the teacup Yorkie with its mouth, and moments later the miniature dog was no longer breathing, Schreiber said in an interview.
The Labrador, a rescue, was screened before it came to Wagtime and never displayed aggressive behavior, she said. After the incident, the dog was evaluated by a canine-behavior specialist who also found no signs of violence in the rescue dog. The Labrador has since been adopted by a woman with no children and no other dogs.
"This is not anything that anyone who works for me could have prevented," Schreiber said. "I do want people to understand this is a cage-free facility, and there are inherent risks here. We are not negligent here, but it is horrible that it happened."
Bruce Wagman, a partner at Schiff Hardin in San Francisco who specializes in animal law, said that a six-figure settlement awarded to LaPonzina would be an unprecedented amount in the death of an animal.
That seems an unlikely outcome, however, Wagman said.
If someone intentionally kills a pet, it occasionally might yield a significant penalty. But for LaPonzina to receive a sizable settlement, Wagman said, she would have to prove that Wagtime was not just negligent but had intentionally killed Dax. When owners do receive significant cash settlements for the death of a pet, such as when a police officer kills a dog during a home raid, Wagman said, it is typically because the officer violated the civil rights of the homeowners, not because their pet is dead.
"Every state, in every court everywhere, animals are considered property," Wagman said. "That said, there is no question that courts are more and more appreciating that animals are not like computers. They are not vases, and they're not books."
This is not the first time Wagtime has faced complaints about its care of animals or how it operates its facilities.
In 2015, a dog walker dropped the leash of a 9-month-old puppy being boarded overnight, and the dog was struck by a car. Its owner sued, but the case was settled out of court.
Wagtime ran into trouble in 2003 for moving into a now-closed location near Logan Circle without a certificate of occupancy. It also squabbled with neighbors over noise and cleanliness complaints.
LaPonzina's lawsuit also accuses Wagtime Too of not having the correct license to operate its Navy Yard location. Dog-care facilities operate under a D.C. basic business license, and the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs said the Navy Yard location has not been issued one. On Nov. 3 the owners applied for a certificate of occupancy, which is not the same as a business license.
Schreiber said that she has been in touch with city agencies and that the absence of a license is the result of a paperwork error. Matt Orlins, a spokesman for the DCRA, said there is no evidence of a clerical error.
Wagtime see hundreds of dogs a day, and until Dax, none had ever died in its facilities, Schreiber said.
Last week she sent a letter to customers informing them of the July death of Dax and ensuring them that their canines are safe in Wagtime's care. "This incident was not in any way caused by negligence," the notice stated.
LaPonzina said she will be going beyond the courts and pushing for regulatory reform in the D.C. government to tighten operating standards for dog-boarding facilities.
"Dax was just so adorable, you couldn't ever be mad at him — you couldn't not love him," LaPonzina said. "This dog has been through it all with me."