The Missoula County District Court reached a settlement for more than $5,000 last month in a civil lawsuit for the death of a Missoula family’s dog in 2019 after it was caught in an illegal animal trap.
Plaintiffs Bryan Dalpes and Rachel Luger were awarded $3,950 in punitive damages and $1,414.50 in damages and special fees by the Missoula County District Court for the death of their 17-month-old Lab mix, Betsy, following testimony given on March 17.
“This is a long time coming,” said the plaintiffs' attorney, William Rideg. “It is an important benchmark and will set precedent for future, similar cases.”
Luger, co-plaintiff and co-owner of Betsy, said she feels a sense of closure following the settlement.
“After having a delay in this case from COVID, it’s a relief to have this chapter closed,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
Luger wanted the case to be on the record in order to create accountability, set precedent and provide a path to follow for similar cases down the road, she said.
Dalpes and Luger adopted Betsy when she was about 12 weeks old after seeing her photo on the Humane Society of Western Montana’s website and immediately falling in love, Luger said.
“She loved everyone and everything,” Luger said, describing Betsy as incredibly loving and curious. Dalpes chose the name Betsy, figuring it would suit her well as both a puppy and an older dog.
In December 2019, Dalpes was walking Betsy in the Tower Street Conservation Area when she was caught in an animal trap and did not survive, according to court documents. Dalpes made efforts to release Betsy from the trap and sustain her life but was not able to do so.
Luger and Dalpes accused the defendants, Michael K. Bruno and Jaymz Partida, both of Missoula, of illegally setting an animal trap in the conservation area, according to the default judgment.
Dalpes said the steel-jawed trap was set on a popular walking path in a public area where animals are allowed to be off leash, according to court documents.
“This was a type of situation we never imagined to be possible given the community area it was in,” Dalpes said.
The trap was illegally placed on city property and was improperly set in accordance with Montana Fish and Game regulations, according to the complaint filed by Dalpes and Luger in March 2020. The defendants were issued citations by authorities for state and city code violations.
Partida was issued a 10-year suspension of his hunting, fishing and trapping privileges, along with a sentence of six months in the Missoula County Detention Center with all suspended but five days. He was also directed to complete a trapping class.
“The intrinsic value of animals in Montana is growing, and I think this case is a reflection of that,” Rideg said. He thinks this settlement is the largest monetary amount awarded in the death of a dog, he added.
Punitive damages are expressly allowed in cases of “wrongful injuries to animals,” according to court documents.
The “defendant, by placing the trap in such a public location, placed Betsy and other people and animals at serious risk of injury or death,” the default judgment said. “The resulting wrongful injury to Betsy was committed by gross negligence in disregard of humanity and warrants the imposition of punitive damages.”
Rideg said animal law is in its infancy in Missoula, and following the implementation of new trapping laws next year, he expects to see domestic animal death numbers to go through the roof.
Dalpes said everyone who owns a dog should know a trapping accident is completely possible, and it’s important for owners to know how to release their pets if they ever find themselves in this kind of situation.