The Kern County Superintendent of Schools office is going after a man maimed in a raccoon attack for more than $206,000 in legal costs related to his unsuccessful lawsuit over the incident.
Ian Smith, 34, filed a lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court in December 2010, accusing KCSOS of negligence after a raccoon that had escaped from its enclosure at the California Living Museum attacked him Jan. 31, 2010, in front of his autistic, then 8-year-old daughter.
The Superintendent of Schools office operates CALM.
A November 2012 jury trial ended in a mistrial. In a second trial this past October,a jury sided with KCSOS, which to date has paid $75,000 toward Smith's medical care.
Now the superintendent's office is seeking $206,542 to recoup costs associated with depositions, expert witness fees, court fees, exhibits and other expenses related to defending the case. KCSOS is not entitled to recovery of attorney fees under the California Code of Civil Procedure.
A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Dec. 23.
"Because the jury decided in favor of KCSOS on this matter, and because Mr. Smith refused to accept a statutory offer valued at $125,000 to settle the case, KCSOS is entitled and obligated to seek recovery of the taxpayer supported expenses that were incurred as a result of Mr. Smith's decision to litigate this matter," said KCSOS spokesman Rob Meszaros.
Smith said $125,000 wouldn't have covered even the medical bills that were outstanding at the time, let alone the future bills he is facing with years of ongoing treatment.
The raccoon bit Smith's foot, leg and hand, causing nerve damage in the hand and nearly cutting through a finger.
Doctors have operated on Smith twice but six more surgeries are needed, he said. In the meantime, Smith said he can't use his left hand at all and occasionally has strange flare-ups from the nerve damage.
"My hand will turn colors, and the middle finger, the one that was nearly severed, turns completely black," he said.
The single father of a 12-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son, Smith said he has been forced to give up his home of seven years, and his career is effectively over.
Smith has been unable to work in his previous career selling medical equipment in the four years since the attack, he said. His restricted hand mobility and all the doctor appointments interfered with the work.
He tried to start a small business selling technology accessories online but the company didn't make enough money to sustain itself, Smith said, so he recently was granted disability payments and is going back to school.
"I'm hoping if I'm better educated, employers will overlook all the medical problems," Smith said.
He says he still has about $45,000 in outstanding medical bills, not including $2,000 in trauma counseling for his daughter. The remainder of what he owed before has either been written off as bad debt or he's negotiated settlements with medical providers.
But Smith anticipates another $180,000 to $200,000 in ongoing expenses including the surgeries he needs and $400 a month in medicines he's supposed to be taking.
"I've been trying to wean myself off of them because I can't afford them," Smith said.
Smith said he will meet with a bankruptcy attorney in a few weeks because he has no way to pay any of his creditors, to say nothing of KCSOS' legal expenses.
The raccoon that attacked Smith had only been at CALM for about a month when it escaped its enclosure. Seven hours passed without a sighting, so staff at the zoo assumed the animal had run off into the relatively remote area that surrounds the zoo.
That assumption proved to be incorrect when the animal attacked Smith in front of his daughter.
After struggling with the raccoon for about five minutes, Smith pinned the animal to the ground until help arrived. The raccoon was euthanized. It tested negative for rabies.
Last year, a different jury concluded, by a 9-3 vote in favor of Smith, that a dangerous condition existed at CALM at the time of the raccoon attack. But the jury hung on the question of liability, and the judge declared a mistrial.
Smith said he will appeal this year's verdict because he's lost his livelihood, his credit is ruined, and he can't pursue a new career without medical care.
He'd prefer settling to going to court again, though.
"I'm just trying to get my medical bills paid so I can go back to work and pay back my parents," he said.
Smith's parents raided their retirement savings to help their son and grandchildren get another home, he said.
His mother, Lillian Smith, said she was "shocked, just shocked" when the second jury went against her son, and KCSOS' decision to go after legal costs adds insult to injury.
"He's not trying to make money off this," she said. "He's just an amazing single dad trying to get his medical bills taken care of.
"It just doesn't make any sense."