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Lawsuit against city details K9's mauling of 68-year-old man in his home

A resident who was mauled by a police K9 that got away from his handler has sued the city of Hendersonville and the dog's  handler, saying the "egregiousness" of the attack "cannot be overstated."

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 25 by Cary attorney John M. McCabe on behalf of Kevin O’Neill and his wife, Mary, recounts in vivid detail a nightmarish attack on the man and his wife, who were leaving for a party to celebrate his 68th birthday when the 75-pound male police dog lunged at him and knocked him to the floor in his home.
City Manager John Connet and City Attorney Angela Beeker notified the media on Tuesday that the lawsuit had been filed, saying they had no intention of hiding its existence.
“We continue to regret that it happened,” Connet said, adding that he expected the City Council to talk about the lawsuit in closed session Thursday night.
“On October 25, 2022, a lawsuit was filed against the city of Hendersonville regarding an incident which occurred on August 2, 2020, involving former Hendersonville Police Department K9 Sunny,” the city said in a statement. “Because a lawsuit has been filed, the city is unable to comment further at this time.”

The lawsuit said that at the time of the attack, the K9 should have been in a fenced kennel as the city police department required. The dog’s handler, K-9 officer Robert Cantwell, is also named in the lawsuit as a defendant. The incident also violated a county ordinance that applies to all dog owners requiring dogs to be on a leash when they’re off the owner’s property, the plaintiffs said.
Before the incident, the lawsuit said, Sgt. Cantwell “had a history of disregarding and defying” the leash law, regularly allowing his dogs, including Sunny and other police K9s he was responsible for, to roam at large. On at least two previous occasions a dog owned by Cantwell attacked other dogs, the lawsuit said. In 2013 Cantwell’s German shepherd attacked the O’Neills’ Pomeranian, Tiesto, while Mary O’Neill was walking the smaller dog, and in 2015 Cantwell’s K-9 Maki viciously attacked two other dogs in a neighbor’s yard, inflicting serious injury to both, the plaintiffs said. Although city became aware of the February 2015 attack, it continued to entrust K-9s to Cantwell and allowed him to keep them at home, where they continued to roam at large unsupervised, the lawsuit said.
Sunny was a Belgian Malinois, a police dog breed chosen for their aggressive nature and intimidating disposition. As such, the suit said, Cantwell should have known that it was imperative to keep the K9 under watchful control and should have known that Sunny was trained “to find and bite” and hold its targets until commanded to let go.
A 3-year-old male weighing 75 pounds, Sunny was roaming freely on a Sunday afternoon, Aug. 2, 2020, the lawsuit said, when the O’Neills were leaving their home to attend Kevin O’Neill 68th birthday party at a daughter’s residence.
Sunny first lunged at Mary O’Neill, who called out to Kevin to unlock the car door remotely from inside the house. When Kevin pointed the key fob toward the car, Sunny immediately raced toward him and lunged, knocking him to the kitchen floor. The dog began attacking him relentlessly, tearing his clothes from his body, the lawsuit said. The dog “scratched, bit, latched onto and gouged various parts of O’Neill’s body including his face, eyes, chin, throat, arms, hands, chest, abdomen, groin, scrotum and legs.” Hearing her husband’s cries for help, Mary O’Neill called 911 and raced into the home with a steel garden rake. Although she struck the K9 with the rake, the dog, “in keeping with its training not to release its hold until commanded to do so by its handler, did not relent,” the suit alleges. “Instead, it continued to attack plaintiff Kevin O’Neill from head to toe.”
When Sunny momentarily released its grip, the O’Neills were able to escape outside. However, they could not fully close the door because the rake was stuck in the doorway.
Meanwhile, Cantwell, realizing Sunny was loose, got in his cruiser to look for the K9. The officer heard the O’Neills’ cries for help and retrieved the dog. He “never once apologized” to the O’Neills for the attack nor did he render aid at the scene, the lawsuit said.
First responders with Valley Hill Fire & Rescue and the county ambulance service documented O’Neill’s injuries in detail, as did the emergency room at AdventHealth, which said the patient had been “mauled by a dog” and suffered multiple scratches, bites, puncture wounds and other injuries.
O’Neill was discharged from the ER after 4½ hours and given wound treatment in the weeks that followed. Both Mary and Kevin O’Neill suffered severe emotional distress after the attack, forcing them to undergo therapy.
Although Henderson County labeled Sunny a “dangerous dog” the city refused to euthanize him, nor did police take any disciplinary action against Cantwell, the plaintiffs said. In a news release it issued the day after the attack, the city “falsely represented that Cantwell ‘immediately rendered first aid’” before first responders arrived, the plaintiffs said. “The truth is defendant Cantwell rendered no aid whatsoever” following the attack.
The lawsuit makes claims for relief against the city and Cantwell for gross negligence, wanton conduct and negligent infliction of emotional distress and adds a separate claim against Cantwell individually for punitive damages because of the “egregiousness of the attack” and the fact that the officer knew Sunny was aggressive and dangerous. The lawsuit, filed in Henderson County Civil Superior Court, seeks compensatory and punitive damages of at least $25,000 plus interest and demands a jury trial.