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City pays $1.75 million in lawsuit over police K9 that mauled couple

Four months after a man mauled by a police K9 that got away from his handler sued the city of Hendersonville, the Hendersonville City Council authorized an independent review of the circumstances that led to the attack. The council made the decision after City Manager John Connet announced that the city and its insurance company had settled the lawsuit for $1.75 million.

In a lawsuit filed in October, an attorney for the couple attacked in August 2020 by a 75-pound Belgian Malinois said the egregiousness of the attack "cannot be overstated." The lawsuit, filed by John M. McCabe of Cary on behalf of Kevin O’Neill and his wife, Mary, recounted in vivid detail a nightmarish attack on the couple, who were leaving for a party to celebrate his 68th birthday when the police dog lunged at him and knocked him to the floor in his home.

The City Council on Thursday night approved a contract for $17,000 with the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police to "review the events that led to this attack." Consultants with the police chiefs association will review any past incidents involving city police K9s,  the city's process for selecting K9 handlers and animals and K9 training procedures and draft a report offering recommendations for improvement and risk mitigation, according to the contract the council unanimously approved Thursday night.

There was little discussion before the council vote. When council member Jerry Smith asked whether the consultant's review would look into what happened immediately after the attack, Connet said that it would.

In the lawsuit, the O'Neills accused the city, the police department and the dog's handler, Sgt. Robert Cantwell, of failing to keep the dog, a 3-year-old male named Sunny, under control. 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 had been responsible for, to roam at large.

The dog-bite victim sought damages from the city and Cantwell for gross negligence, wanton conduct and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit added 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, sought compensatory and punitive damages of at least $25,000 plus interest.