Family could lose house over $500,000 barking dog lawsuit

This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

SEATTLE (CNN/KOMO) - Can a dog be worth half a million dollars?  A barking dog set off a lawsuit potentially worth $500,000.  It could cause the dog's owner losing not just the lawsuit, but her home.

We all know that neighbor.  The person next door or down the street with the dog that won't be quiet.

Denise Norton and her dog Cawper may be those people, even if they don't think so.  They live in north Seattle and are just in shock.

"We're flabbergasted over it," Norton said.

It seems Cawper may cost the family dearly.

"How can you give somebody a half a million dollar lien over a dog barking?"

That's exactly what's happened.  In a sprawling 36-page complaint, Norton's neighbor Woodrow Thompson alleges that Cawper is known for "raucously, wildly bellowing, howling and explosively barking" and that he is an outrage, with intentional infliction of emotional distress -- and that his barking caused "profound emotional distress."

Norton practically laughs it off.

"Does he look like he barks all day long?" she says.

Thompson's complaint suggests Cawper is capable of barking at 128 decibels through double pane windows.  According to Purdue University research, that would mean Cawper is louder than a chainsaw, a clap of thunder and just a hair quieter than the takeoff of a military jet.

"This whole thing just gets me wound up.  Ugh!"

In the suit, Thompson demanded more than $500,000 in damages.  And he won.  How?

Mike Fandel is a civil attorney.  He doesn't have any direct connection to Cawper's case, but can explain how Thompson won this case.

"You can bring a frivolous lawsuit and win if the other side doesn't show up," said Fandel.

Despite being served with papers, Norton didn't respond.  She thought it was bunk.

"In my head, everything was so bogus that he'd been doing, I don't know why, I just didn't think it was real or something," Norton said.

Records show Thompson was given a default judgment because his claims were unchallenged.

"If you think it ought to be dismissed, it will only be dismissed if you ask the court to do it," Fandel explained.

"And you've got to be there for that and participate," reporter Jon Humbert asked.  "Yes you do," Fandel said.

Norton blames herself.  "I take full responsibility. I didn't respond," she said.

So began months of finally going to court to try to unravel the judgment -- after the lien became official.

"The Sheriff comes, puts the papers on the garage and the wall and everything and saying they were going to put the house up for sale."

What does the neighbor, Woodrow Thompson, say about all of this?  KOMO tried multiple times to contact him to get his side of the story, in person, by phone and by email.  They never heard anything or saw any movement at his home.

Norton, though, has seen enough.  She noticed a camera pointed directly into her backyard from Thompson's awning.

"I don't know if it's fake or real or what, but it makes you want to not even go out in the yard," she said.

It's part of the evidence she wants to take back to court to fight the judgment.  It's on hold now because the family has poured much of its savings into hiring lawyers, perhaps a few years too late.

Now with half a million dollars, a home, and a future on the line because of 'woman's best friend.'

"He's just a loving, nice dog."

A previous judge didn't dismiss the case in part of the family's admitted financial troubles in the past.  Attorney Fandel said it's going to be an uphill battle to get the case dismissed.

It's a warning for everyone to take lawsuits seriously -- no matter how they begin.