The owners of a Labrador retriever that was struck by a car and killed in East St. Paul are appalled and "heartbroken" that Manitoba Public Insurance is suing them for the cost of the damaged vehicle.
Anastasia Rzesnoski's husband Kris surprised her with the tender-hearted puppy to complete their family in February 2014, after several unsuccessful years of trying for a child. They named the dog "Bobby Orr" after Kris' favourite hockey player; he'd always wanted to say he was going fishing, hiking or hunting with him.
Bobby Orr was running free on his first birthday when his life was cut short Feb. 26, 2015.
"I still think about him every day … he was my furbaby," said Rzesnoski, through tears.
She and her husband had dropped the pup off at the in-laws' for a few days while Rzesnoski was recovering from a surgery.
The dog had been off the leash while playing on the sprawling, unfenced front yard with another dog, then darted to Hoddinott Road, where the speed limit is 70 km/h. Bobby was hit by a driver who didn't see him behind the garbage and recycling bin.
"We should have trained him better and I take full responsibility for it … and unfortunately we were not there to put him on a leash," said Rzesnoski.
She said the driver of the 2014 Toyota Corolla stopped and apologized to her father-in-law for what happened. The two men exchanged information and the driver left.
"He was in a hurry, and I was in a hurry to get to Bobby," said Terry Rzesnoski, Anastasia's father-in-law, who called Bobby his "grand-dog."
Rzesnoski had stepped inside for a brief moment when the accident happened. To this day, he chokes up when speaking about it.
"I felt Bobby's heart stop beating. The neighbour's girls were going to call a vet. I said, 'There is no need for that.'"
Thought MPI had made a mistake
Two months later, the Rzesnoskis received a letter in the mail from MPI, informing them they were responsible for the cost of repairing the damaged vehicle — $2,536.97.
However, the letter incorrectly stated that the incident happened on a highway near Winnipegosis, nearly four hours from East St. Paul.
"It wasn't anywhere close to where the accident happened so we advised them that they'd made a mistake and sent the letter to the wrong person," said Anastasia Rzesnoski. Though the correspondence was addressed to her father-in-law, she said, she and her husband were assuming responsibility because Bobby was theirs.
Three months after that, a second letter arrived from MPI, this time with her in-laws' correct address, reiterating that they owed $2,536.97 for the damaged vehicle, and requesting that they forward the information to their home insurer for handling.
They did not respond to that letter because it 'didn't seem real,' she said.
A third letter arrived in September 2015, this time citing a different claim number and name of claimant than was listed in the previous letters. Terry Rzesnoski says he responded by letter to MPI to correct their error.
"It was so painful every time to get a letter," said Anastasia Rzesnoski.
"Their mistakes were so aggravating, adding insult to the old wound, and it was upsetting and it kept reminding me, over and over and over what happened."
She said neither she nor her father-in-law ever received a phone call from MPI.
"We thought, 'These guys are all over the place. Their overall lack of empathy was … so upsetting," she said.
A fourth, final letter from MPI arrived in November, she said. That one threatened legal action and required them to respond immediately.
Her husband wrote the letter of response requesting estimates for the cost of the damaged vehicle, and Terry said he sent it by mail to MPI.
They didn't hear from Manitoba Public Insurance for just over a year after that, and Rzesnoski said she assumed the case had been dropped because of the errors and confusion regarding the claim.
But on Feb. 16, 2017, nearly two years after Bobby's death, a letter from MPI informed the Rzesnoskis they were being taken to small claims court for the money.
Rzesnoski said when her husband told her, she laughed at first, because they hadn't received any correspondence from MPI all year.
Then, reality hit.
"It hurts. To me, it's so unfair. I just don't understand how they can be so ruthless," she said, through tears.
Each of the letters from MPI cited the Animal Liability Act as the basis for why the family was being held responsible for the damage to the vehicle. The act states that the owner of an animal is liable for any damages it causes to people or property.
"I'm confused, I'm frustrated, I'm upset, I'm angry with them for putting me through this again. Two years later I still feel the same pain as I did the day he got hit," she said.
More than anything, she said she dreads a court battle and paying even more than she already has for the loss of her pet.
"Why do you go after the family of the victim to cover those costs? I just don't understand the situation … and they never bothered to explain it to me," she said.
Right of recovery
A spokesperson for Manitoba Public Insurance cited the Animal Liability Act as the basis for their "right of recovery," specifically; sections 2(1) and 2(2) which hold the owner responsible for any damage caused by their animal, even in the absence of the owner's fault or negligence.
The spokesperson states that MPI exchanges regular communication with customers in an effort to reach an amicable resolution for matters like this one, but has the legal obligation to pursue the costs to keep down the insurance rates for other customers.
While the spokesperson cannot speak to specific claims, he states people have the option to make a claim through their home insurance.
Kris Rzesnoski looked into that option and said with the deductible and rate increases, it would cost close to the same as if they paid the lump sum. Though he doesn't dispute the law or the damage to the man's vehicle, he said he plans to appear in court to ask the judge to waive the charge.
"You can show empathy and compassion and still do the job," he said, adding the errors, confusion and "coldness" in the correspondence from MPI took a major toll on his wife.
"It was negligent the way they handled it. It's her furbaby," he said.
Automotive insurance in B.C. is public as well, and a spokesperson for ICBC stated that they would not typically seek recovery of vehicle damage costs from a dog owner. A driver can pursue a dog owner for recovery of a deductible, but negligence on part of the owner would have to be proven in court.
A spokesperson for Saskatchewan General Insurance said it is uncommon, though possible, that they would hold owners of an animal responsible for damage to a vehicle in that province.
The Rzesnoskis now have a five-month-old baby girl and a new lab who is always on the leash at his in-laws'. While they love him, he's not Bobby.
"He was a big cuddler," said Anastasia, through tears.
"All the kids that would come and visit us, he would kiss them all the time … he was a lover. He was an amazing, amazing dog. I miss him every day."