San Francisco Chronicle Consults Walkup Firm About the Tiger Attack

Phillip Matier, Andrew Ross
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

San Francisco's two leading political up-and-comers kicked off their second terms Tuesday in celebrations that were quite a contrast in styles.

Mayor Gavin Newsom held his "modest" swearing-in under the grand Rotunda of City Hall, complete with both the San Francisco Girls and Boys choruses, a master of ceremonies and blue carpet for the VIPs.

Notables included Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, former San Francisco Mayors Willie Brown and Frank Jordan, plus mayors from around the Bay Area and members of the city's foreign diplomatic corps.

District Attorney Kamala Harris, on the other hand, opted to be her own emcee at a stripped-down swearing-in at Delancey Street, San Francisco's leading rehab center and ground zero for city Democratic politics. Milk and cookies were served afterward.

The ceremonies were not complete polar opposites. For starters, event planner Stanlee Gatti did the staging for both - 2,000 yellow roses for Newsom's event, Harris in front of a lit fireplace, underneath a mantel adorned by olive branches and copies of the Bill of Rights and the state penal code.

And both events featured the presence of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who administered the oath of office to Harris.

The Feinstein-Harris joint appearance was especially noteworthy, given that the senator took the then-rookie D.A. to task nearly four years ago for not seeking the death penalty for cop killer David Hill.

"We still disagree on the death penalty," Feinstein said, "but that doesn't mean we aren't friends or that she's not a bright, fine public official."

Something else the two events shared was chatter about the presidential race, in which both Newsom and Harris have a stake.

Harris, who spent a week campaigning in Iowa for Barack Obama, said before New Hampshire's votes were counted that she was "thrilled" by the results she had seen so far.

Newsom, who is backing Hillary Clinton and spent a couple of days in Iowa campaigning for her, declined to talk about the race, saying that "today is about San Francisco."

In terms of out-and-out gossip, Newsom's event took the prize hands down - with most eyes wandering over the mayor's bride-to-be, Jennifer Siebel, who looked especially radiant as she took her place on stage.

And a lot of that radiance emanated from the Tiffany diamond engagement ring Siebel was sporting on her left hand.

An eyewitness tells us Newsom showed up at Tiffany's on Union Square three days before Christmas with his sister to pick out the ring. Our source says it was about 3 carats and cost a bit over $100,000.

The store isn't saying, and neither is the mayor's office or Siebel. But a Tiffany representative back at company headquarters in New Jersey told us that list prices for a 2.8-carat keepsake range from $61,500 to $133,000.

So no matter how you cut it, it's a lot.

By the tail: Taunting or no taunting, San Francisco may be on the hook for millions of dollars for the deadly tiger attack at the zoo.

Legal experts tell us that because of the "strict liability" provision of state law, the city is responsible for injuries or death caused by a wild animal at the zoo under virtually any circumstances.

A plaintiff doesn't even have to prove that the city was negligent, says Matt Davis, a former San Francisco deputy city attorney and now partner at the downtown law firm Walkup, Melodia, Kelly and Schoenberger.

"People who own wild animals are responsible for the harm that these animals cause to others, no matter how carefully they guard or restrain these animals," according to the state Judicial Council instructions that would be read to the jury if a lawsuit went to trial.

Although the city can't be sued for punitive damages, the nonprofit group that manages the zoo's daily operations can. And it could be on the hook because of the killer tiger's 2006 mauling of a zookeeper and the zoo's own admission that its protective fence around the big cat exhibit was shorter than recommended under nationwide standards.

Bottom line - regardless of whether the tiger was provoked, it looks like the city and zoo will pay the price for the fatal mauling of 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and the injuries to brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal.

"You often see settlements and verdicts in the range of $1 million to $5 million for the death of a teenager," Davis said.

Asked for comment, city attorney's spokesman Matt Dorsey would say only, "It's impossible to speculate on the potential litigation exposure to the city and its taxpayers. There is no lawsuit or claim, and the investigation is ongoing."

Recreation and Park Director Yomi Agunbiade, whose office has oversight responsibility for the zoo, said he's banking on a hold-harmless clause in San Francisco's agreement with the Zoological Society - which says the city won't be liable for the zoo's negligence - to help protect city coffers. But he concedes that's a whole other issue for lawyers to fight about.

Spare change: Democratic candidate Joe Veronese might not be the most creative wordsmith on the block, but he's one of the quickest - now declaring his race for the state Senate's District 3 seat (now held by Carole Migden) the "campaign for change."

Hey - it worked for Obama.