Judge gives a victory to Grover Beach in lawsuit over deadly dog mauling

Former Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger performs K-9 training exercises in a bite-proof suit with a dog in Hanford in 2013. In 2016, his personally owned retired police dog (not the one shown herer) escaped its yard and mauled two neighbors, killing one.
Former Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger performs K-9 training exercises in a bite-proof suit with a dog in Hanford in 2013. In 2016, his personally owned retired police dog (not the one shown herer) escaped its yard and mauled two neighbors, killing one.

A judge ruled last week that the Grover Beach Police Department didn’t have any agreement to create a K-9 unit when it hired a former officer who quickly started working to form one about a month before his retired police dog mauled two neighbors, killing one of them.

The city’s police chief has said the department had “internally explored” the idea of starting such a unit, but didn’t hire former officer Alex Geiger to do so, nor because Geiger had purchased his trained patrol Belgian Malinois from his previous department and brought the dog, named Neo, with him to Grover Beach.

The city of Grover Beach is one of several defendants named in a wrongful death and personal injury lawsuit filed in September 2017 by the family of 64-year-old David Fear, who died three days after the attack, as well as 87-year-old Betty Long, who was seriously injured.

Geiger, the officer who owned the dog, resigned from the Grover Beach Police Department in February 2017, roughly two months after Neo and another of his dogs got loose while he was at work, with the Belgian Malinois aggressively attacking the neighbors as Long walked her dog outside her home.

The media eventually obtained records that revealed Geiger had left his job at the Police Department in Exeter, where he was a K-9 officer and had trained Neo as his partner.

According to records obtained by The Tribune, Geiger and another officer were lobbying the department to start its own K-9 unit just one month after he was sworn in.

Geiger, 27, who public records show now lives in Visalia, has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges of failing to maintain control over a dangerous animal resulting in injury or death as well as one felony count of manslaughter. He is scheduled to go to trial next month and faces up to nearly four years in state prison if convicted of all charges.

The lawsuit

The lawsuit by Fear’s family and Long alleges negligence on the part of Geiger, his former landlords, the city of Exeter, and the city of Grover Beach, and seeks an unspecified amount of damages to recover legal fees, and medical and burial expenses, as well as punitive damages. The landlords’ insurance company settled its involvement in the case for $500,000 in July, according to court records.

Prior to moving to Grover Beach, Geiger purchased the 2-1/2-year-old, fully trained dog from the city of Exeter for $5,287.50, according to records provided by the city. The lawsuit alleges Geiger purchased the dog and subsequently took the job at the Grover Beach Police Department in order to establish a K-9 unit there.

Geiger’s 140-page proposal for a Grover Beach K-9 unit sent to police Chief John Peters on Nov. 10, 2016, found that a program would initially cost about $30,000 to create — not including a specialized vehicle to transport the dog — and an additional $1,000 per month to train a dog.

The packet, which Geiger submitted with another officer, provided Peters with state certification guidelines, possible grant opportunities, a list of specialized K-9 Unit SUVs, a copy of the Arroyo Grande Police Department’s K-9 policy, and articles from public and private organizations on “establishing a new K-9 unit for a small department.”

On the last page of the binder, the officers told Peters they did not know how frequently the Grover Beach Police Department requests the use of an outside agency’s K-9 for local operations but that the K-9 handler for the Pismo Beach Police Department “has stated their K-9 gets more work and finds more drugs when assisting the Grover Beach Police Department than its own department,” the memo reads.

“It is our hope that you consider moving forward in putting a K-9 team together for Grover Beach Police Department,” the proposal reads.

Peters, who did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday, previously told The Tribune that the department had “internally explored” adding a K-9 officer, but that it had “no interest” in Geiger’s dog. Peters called Geiger’s proposal “an unsolicited proposal which was not considered or acted upon by the city.”

“Officer Geiger was not hired because of the ownership of his personal dog,” Peters told The Tribune in January 2017.

To assist in their lawsuit, Fear’s family and Long motioned the court for documents related to Geiger’s personnel history, as well as any written communications and meetings regarding Geiger and K-9 units from Grover Beach.

In their motion, they argued the case involves questions about Geiger’s qualifications as a K-9 handler, whether Exeter was negligent in selling the dog to Geiger, and whether there was any agreement between Geiger and Grover Beach to establish a K-9 unit.

What the judge said

In his ruling Nov. 14, Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera narrowed the scope of which of Geiger’s records will be disclosed, and also found that their request for records related to establishing a unit was overbroad. However, he also wrote that the plaintiffs “stated a sufficient link between some of the requested documents and how such documents would support their theory of liability against the city.”

At a closed hearing Friday, LaBarbera heard testimony from Peters and determined “there was no agreement with Grover Beach Police Department upon hiring Alex Geiger to be a canine officer or unit, and that the Police Department had no knowledge that Alex Geiger purchased or owned the dog,” according to the court record.

LaBarbera therefore found there were no relevant records for Grover Beach to produce.

Clayton Hall, an attorney representing Grover Beach, wrote in an email that the ruling was “expected given the city’s complete lack of involvement in the matters that have given rise to the instant litigation.”

Hall said in a followup conversation that the city intends to file a motion dismissing it from the case following the completion of initial discovery, “if the city is not voluntarily dismissed in the interim.”

“It’s a very unfortunate situation, but the city never had any control over the dog,” Hall said.

Long’s attorney, Jacqueline Frederick, was out of state on business Wednesday and was unavailable for comment.

The next case management hearing is set for March 26.

The criminal case against Geiger is scheduled to go to trial in January.

Matt Fountain: 781-7909, @mattfountain1
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune