Last updated: March 17. 2013 3:25AM - 547 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com - (570) 991-6388

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A Luzerne County prison guard's relative wants the county to pay veterinarian bills for injuries to her cat caused by a prison canine, according to a court filing.

Lynn Chudoba, Forty Fort, recently filed a civil complaint against county Controller Walter Griffith, Manager Robert Lawton and all 11 county council members seeking $1,400 in veterinarian bills and court costs.

The filing contained only a brief explanation of the claim: Luzerne County K-9 Wyatt did multiple bite wounds to my cat, Mr. Banks. Asking for vet bills and court costs.

Chudoba could not be reached for comment Friday.

Prison employee Mark Chudoba is Wyatt's handler, but the dog has remained off duty since spring 2012 because of budget cuts and layoffs that prompted Chudoba's reassignment from K-9 officer to prison guard.

Griffith said Lynn Chudoba is Mark Chudoba's wife, and the injuries caused by Wyatt ended up killing the cat over the Christmas holiday. He does not believe the county should be held liable, because handlers accept responsibility for keeping their dogs under control at all times when they accept the K-9 assignment.

County Interim Chief Solicitor Vito DeLuca said a county assistant solicitor has been assigned to represent all county defendants, and he declined to comment on the defense.

A hearing is scheduled at 10:15 a.m. Feb. 20 before District Judge David Barilla.

County K-9 trainer Paul Price, of Northeast Police K-9 Academy in Wilkes-Barre, said he did not know all facts but will investigate over the weekend.

While the county owns the dogs, the handlers accept full responsibility for the care of their animals, he said. If the handlers fail to do what's instructed of them to do, then they hold that responsibility on themselves, said Price. All prison dogs and handlers have gone through my course, and they're very aware of their responsibility.

Price said he emphasizes the prison dogs are not pets.

You can't make them a pet, he said. They're a piece of equipment utilized by the prison, and they have a job.

County officials have not made a decision on whether to continue the prison's K-9 program.

Canine maintenance

The county spends $11,054 annually for the food, care and training of four dogs, but only two – Loky, 9, and Miki, 8 – are now on active duty. The two remaining dogs – Wyatt and Brutus, each 6 – remain off duty because their handlers have been reassigned.

Former prison warden Joe Piazza has said he was reluctant to stop maintaining the younger, at-home dogs because the county has made an investment and might want to bring them back to work in the future. Canines typically retire at 9 or 10 years old and rarely live past 12.

County officials started the prison's K-9 program in March 2005 to enhance drug detection and prevent disturbances.

The county also faces the potential expense of back pay for all four employees who take home dogs if they seek pay for at-home care.

Former prison K-9 officer Joseph Petrovich, who also was furloughed, has filed a suit in federal court arguing he is owed $71,059 in compensation and $17,764 in damages, plus interest, attorney's fees and other costs.

Petrovich said the prison failed to follow a Fair Labor Standards Act requirement to provide additional compensation to K-9 officers who keep their dogs at their homes. Case law has established handlers should receive an additional 30 minutes per day, seven days per week, for at-home care, including bathing, exercising, grooming and feeding the canines.

Handlers across the country have received back-pay settlements for at-home care in jurisdictions that didn't comply with the requirement, according to published reports.

Petrovich's dog, Rocky, has retired, and he purchased him for $1 as part of a county agreement.

The five dogs had been purchased for a combined $45,500.

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