Missy, a tiny mini-pinscher, was out walking with her mistress in New York’s Greenwich Village and didn’t see it coming. Unexpectedly, a pit bull passing by off-leash with his owner grabbed her head in his mouth and dug his teeth into her. Both owners dropped to their knees, trying vainly to open those vise-like jaws. All they could see of Missy’s face was one eye, staring helplessly from between parallel rows of good-sized teeth. Blood was starting to drip on the sidewalk and both dog owners were in a panic. Finally, some Good Samaritan applied the lit end of a cigarette to the opening below the pit bull’s tail, and the dog opened its mouth. Missy was free, but in bad shape. Her owner scooped her up and hailed a taxi to take her to the animal hospital as fast as possible.
That was the story Missy’s owner told the mediator trainees and me, their mentor, one cold winter’s night in Manhattan’s Small Claims Court. I could see the students blanch as they visualized the scene in their heads, and even I wasn’t initially sure we could (or should) even mediate the case. But Missy’s owner, there with her lawyer, and the pit bull’s owner, there on her own, weren’t going to be able to see the judge that night, so in we plunged.
It turned out that Missy’s owner had filed a claim to recover all veterinary expenses. In addition, she was seeking payment for her own doctor bills incurred by the incident, since she said she had recently recovered from spinal surgery and had re-injured her back trying to separate the dogs. There were also bills for psychotherapy, necessitated, she said, by the trauma of seeing her little Missy in such danger. She informed us during the course of mediation that she was also planning a career in doggie modeling for Missy, and wanted compensation for lost future income. This was the first time the pit bull’s owner heard these demands and she was shocked, to say the least.
Not to be outdone, the pit bull’s owner told us she had adopted the dog five months ago, he had been abused by his former owner, she was making progress rehabilitating him, but she was currently out of work. She was starting a new job in two weeks, though. This was the first time Missy’s owner heard about her adversary’s attempt to help a mistreated animal and her rather delicate financial condition.
So the pit bull’s owner had a sympathetic story but not a very deep pocket, while Missy’s owner had a sad tale, but seemed a tad greedy about how she should be compensated. These were the positions of the parties when the mediators began their work. One of their first steps was to get information out on the table. Besides the statements made above, they learned that Missy’s owner felt terribly upset that the pit bull’s ‘mom’ never called to see how Missy was. Thankfully, Missy survived, but she had to have a series of painful and expensive facial reconstructive surgeries and needs to be particularly careful not to damage her new bone structure in the future. It was clear that, for Missy’s ‘mom’, the dog was a surrogate child. She doted on Missy, and this was a severe trauma for the both of them. For the owner of the pit bull not to try to find out how Missy fared after the attack both pained Missy’s ‘mom’ and angered her deeply. It actually prompted her to file suit in small claims court.
During the evening, however, Missy’s mom learned that the pit bull’s owner was not evil incarnate. She had, in fact, attempted to contact Missy’s owner, asking local merchants if they knew her name or phone number, but had been unsuccessful. She was genuinely worried about what happened to Missy, and she expressed that in the mediation. She pointed out that she was a dog lover, and that was why she had adopted Charlie, the pit bull. She had seen him in a shelter, bruised and cowering in his cage. His former owner had beaten him frequently and severely.
Eventually, with a lot of talking and negotiating, along with the assistance of Missy’s owner’s attorney (who acted as a superb reality check in the private sessions held with Missy’s mom) a settlement was reached: the pit bull’s owner agreed to pay over time for Missy’s veterinary bills, a not inconsiderable amount but something doable based on her new income. Missy’s owner dropped her other demands. Everyone left the mediation table feeling better.
At the beginning it seemed this case could only be handled by seeing the judge. All of us experience similar situations, where we think a dispute is impossible to resolve by ourselves, and the only solution is to go to court. Often, this is because emotions took over quickly during the incident, preventing us from listening to anyone but ourselves. Missy’s case demonstrates that there is another way.
Ray Patterson is a facilitative mediator specializing in family law and commercial mediations. He was formerly the associate director of the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the William S. Boyd School of Law.