The reaction from animal lovers to this spring’s Court of Appeals ruling that pit bulls are inherently dangerous was swift and passionate — and at times, ugly. The members of the court and any who agreed with them were accused of effectively sentencing to death an entire breed of dogs — sweet and aggressive ones alike. Lost in much of the discussion was the original context: a 10-year-old boy who was attacked by a pit bull so viciously that he almost bled to death from a torn femoral artery and had to spend 17 days in Johns Hopkins Hospital and a year in rehabilitation. The court’s emphasis on the breed distracted from the essential public policy question: Can a dog’s owner be held liable for such an attack? The answer should be yes, whether the dog is a dachshund or a Doberman, and fortunately, the General Assembly appears likely to take up legislation to make that clear.
The case that led to the court’s decision involved a pit bull named Clifford whose owner kept him outside in a 4-foot-high, roofless pen. On one day in 2007, Clifford jumped out of the pen and attacked a boy named Scotty Mason. The dog’s owner restrained him and returned him to the same pen, which he later jumped out of again and attacked a second boy, Dominic Solesky, causing much more serious injuries. His parents sued the owner of the dog and the landlords who owned the house where the dog lived. The dog’s owner was convicted in a criminal trial of reckless endangerment, but a civil case was wiped out when he declared bankruptcy. The case against the landlords made its way to the Court of Appeals, where a majority of judges ruled that a landlord or a dog’s owner need not have known that the particular dog had a history of violent or aggressive behavior, which was the prevailing liability standard under common law, but could be held accountable simply because they knew or should have known that it was a pit bull.
In their opinion, the judges included extensive documentation to bolster their conclusion that pit bulls are more violent than other dogs and more capable of doing damage when they attack. Many animal rights advocates dispute that evidence. They point to studies that have come to the opposite conclusion and say that prejudice against pit bulls leads to a reporting bias in which dogs that attack are frequently called pit bulls whether they are or not.
What is certain, though, is that pit bulls are not the only breed that is capable of attacking and injuring a person or other animal. Would Dominic Solesky have been any less injured or the dog’s owners been any less liable if Clifford had been a German shepherd or Rottweiler — or a plain old mutt? It would be impossible for the courts or legislature to develop a list of breeds that are safe and a list that are dangerous. The approach that appears to be gaining favor in a legislative work group tasked with studying the matter makes the most sense: strict liability for all dogs. It is a standard that is in effect in more than 30 states and one that responsible dog owners likely already assumed they had to meet.
Lawmakers will need to carve out certain exemptions, such as cases where the dog was provoked or defending its owner’s property from a trespasser. But representatives of animal rights groups who have been following the issue say they could support a strict liability standard for dog owners.
The issue of liability for landlords is another matter. None of the states that have a strict liability standard extend it to landlords, and doing so could make it extremely difficult for dog owners to find rental housing. Restoring the old common-law standard for landlords while enacting strict liability for dog owners would serve what should be the state’s overriding goal: preventing attacks like the one against Dominic Solesky by encouraging responsible dog ownership.
One curiosity of this issue is the lightning speed with which lawmakers are addressing it. The task force had been working to have legislation ready in time for a July special session of the General Assembly, in case one had been called to debate the expansion of gambling. At approximately the same time the Court of Appeals made its pit bull ruling, it released another related to the collection of DNA evidence from those charged with crimes that could have the immediate effect of forcing the release of rapists from prison. It generated not even a fraction of the public outrage engendered by the pit bull ruling. The welfare of dogs is certainly a worthy topic for the legislature, but it would be nice if matters dealing with the welfare of humans were addressed with the same urgency.