Eight families whose dogs drowned in pet care facility sue District Dogs, claim negligence

Eight families whose dogs drowned in pet care facility sue District Dogs

Eight families whose dogs drowned at the District Dogs pet day care and boarding facility in D.C. last August have filed a negligence suit against the company and its founder and chief executive officer.

According to the suit, filed Thursday in D.C. Superior Court against the company and CEO Jacob Hensley, the dogs’ deaths were foreseeable and preventable, since the District Dogs Northeast location, at 680 Rhode Island Avenue, Northeast, had flooded repeatedly, including almost exactly one year prior.

The families of the drowned dogs claim gross negligence, trespass, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violations of District statutes relating to unfair or deceptive trade practices.

The suit says the company was aware of the area’s flooding problems even before the business opened, and took no steps to harden the facility against flooding. According to the suit, both of the business’ external doors and floor-to-ceiling glass windows faced the lowest portion of Rhode Island Avenue. The business did not ensure an alternative means of exiting the facility in the event of a flood, the suit states.

According to the suit, District Dogs didn’t take action, even after experiencing three flash flood events in 2022, including one where water that was over three-feet high collected against the glass doors and windows, making it impossible for staff and dogs to leave.

In a statement provided to WTOP by Hensley, District Dogs said it was aware of the legal action and that since the “catastrophic flood,” it has focused on supporting its staff and clients.

“We believe that this action is without merit and intend to vigorously defend this suit, complete with a full recitation of all efforts undertaken to ensure the safety of this facility, our staff, customers, and the dogs in our care,” the statement said.

On Aug. 14, 2023, flash flood warnings were issued in the District.

The suit claims in the minutes before the windows broke, staff had moved many of the dogs into crates or kennels, arranged in rows and stacked on top of each other.

At 4:52 p.m. floodwater began seeping into the business. Just after 5 p.m., the window walls broke and collapsed, and floodwater inundated the facility.

“Elsa, Josie, Malee, Maple, Marcel, Memphis, Pepper, and Zeni each drowned in excruciating fashion, desperately clawing, scratching, and chewing for life while trapped in cages as flood waters rose through and above the kennels to which Defendants had confined them,” according to the suit, filed by attorneys Daniel Marino and Tillman Finley.

In its statement, District Dogs rejected the suit’s claim that it violated D.C. statutes, citing an “After Action Report” from D.C.’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.

“Among other things, the ‘After Action Report’ confirmed that District Dogs’ facility was in compliance with District code, complete with appropriate inspections. The magnitude and duration of the storm, according to the ‘After Action Report,’ exceeded the capacity of the District’s sewer system, and would have exceeded the capacity of the newly opened Northeast Boundary Tunnel,” Hensley said in the statement.

The suit also says that, soon after the waters began to recede, employees stymied panicked owners’ attempts to recover their pets, adding to their distress. One employee allegedly told a customer, “It’s over. Go home. If you didn’t get your dog, go home, the rest are dead.”

In addition, the lawsuit also claims Hensley failed to return the collars and other belongings belonging to the dogs who drowned, despite promising to do so, for weeks after the flood. Two of the plaintiffs tracked the location of their pet’s collar to Hensley’s home using a device tracker, where the items were being kept in a grocery bag, according to the lawsuit. Some of the families went to Hensley’s home to demand the return of those items, according to the suit, but some items were never accounted for, including one dog’s favorite blanket.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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