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Posted Friday, June 8, 2007
                 
Mauled Haitian woman awarded $3.76 million
       
By Jane Musgrave, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

WEST PALM BEACH — The city of Delray Beach was slapped with a $2.25 million verdict Thursday for failing to protect a 38-year-old hotel housekeeper from two Rottweilers that terrorized a city neighborhood four years ago.

After deliberating for about three hours, the jury awarded Marguene St. Juste, a mother of three who now lives in Lantana with her husband, $3.76 million for the injuries she sustained when she was mauled by a neighbor's Rottweilers.

The jury of four men and two women found the city 60 percent responsible for St. Juste's injuries and dog owner Keli Nowling 40 percent responsible.

St. Juste and her husband, Gladson, said they were pleased by the jury's decision.

"I feel good, but I still have pain," St. Juste said in halting English. "My hands still hurt."

Doctors testified that St. Juste, who moved to Delray from Haiti in 2000, will probably never have full use of her right arm again, said her attorney Brian Smith.

A police officer who was forced to subdue the dogs with a stun gun called the attack the worst he had seen.

Despite the jury's decision, collecting the money won't be easy.

Nowling, who was ordered to pay St. Juste $1.5 million, has left the area, Smith said. Last he heard, she was living in Texas.

More importantly, Assistant City Attorney Terrill Barton said she will recommend the city commission appeal the verdict. Even if commissioners ignore her advice or lose the appeal, a city government can be held liable only for up to $100,000 in damages, according to Florida law.

Smith will have to ask the Florida Legislature to force the city to pay St. Juste the money the jury said she deserves.

During the three-day trial, Smith argued that the city had plenty of opportunity to protect St. Juste from the attack that occurred as she was being dropped off after a day of work at the Delray Beach Marriott. Six complaints had been filed with the city about the dogs that had killed one cat and seriously injured another.

Despite a city law that required vicious dogs to be impounded, the city did nothing until after St. Juste was attacked, Smith said. Then, the dogs were killed.

A city animal control officer testified that the dogs were friendly, Smith said. However, city records show one officer called for backup when she arrived to find the two dogs loose in the yard.

"Serve and protect," Smith said of his argument to the jury. "The city should have protected her. It didn't."

Copyright 2007, The Palm Beach Post. Published June 8, 2007.

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