A new state law takes effect today, October 31, 2012, which significantly impacts dog owners and victims of dog bites throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. An Act Further Regulating Animal Control went into effect today and states that “No city or town shall regulate dogs in a manner that is specific to breed.” This means that this new state law pre-empts local laws, such as those in Lowell and Worcester which had imposed specific bans and regulations on pit bulls. Where did the need for these local laws come from? What is the impact of this new state law on dog bite vicitms? Read on to find out more.
In the summer of 2012, it appeared that there was a wave of violent dog attacks throughout the country. Numerous newspapers including the Washington Post and the Telegram ran articles about these vicious attacks and the liability of dog owners for these attacks. The most common cited dog attack is by pit bulls and many cities have instituted pit bull bans which have been debated on both sides as to whether a specific breed can be deemed “inherently dangerous”.
States and towns began to institute breed specific bans or additional regulations on pit bulls in an attempt to decrease these attacks. In Massachusetts some local towns did just that. Malden passed a pit bull muzzle law, Worcester insituted an entire ordinance on pit bull ownership. Lowell also created its own ordinace.
However, pit bull advocates claim that the figures of pit bull attacks are often inflated because most people assume a dog is a pit bull when they in fact may not be sure. Dogsbite.org reported that 128 people were killed by pit pulls between 2005 and 2011.
Under common law, it is often said that the first victim of a dog bite cannot recover in a negligence suit as the victim would have to prove that the owner had prior knowledge of its dog’s vicious behavior which is difficult to prove if the dog has no history of prior attacks. This is often known as the First Bite Law. States which uphold this law are Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Gerogia, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming.
Other states including Massachusetts and New Hampshire have a strict liability law which means in the event that a dog bites or attacks a person, the owner of the dog will be held legally responsible for any injuries or harm caused by the dog. This means that if you have been bitten or attacked by a dog, and you were not trespassing or committing a crime, the dog owner is required to cover damages for your pain and suffering, medical bills, lost wages, future lost wages, and decreased quality of life. With this strict liability law, you do not need to prove that the owner knew that the dog was vicious or had aggressive tendencies. You also do not need to prove negligence or fault on the part of the dog owner.
In Maryland, the court recently declared that pit bulls are inherently dangerous. This meant that strict liability applied to the owner of a pit bull and any landlord who rents to a pit bull owner. This court decision stems from the Solesky v. Tracey [198 Md App. 292 (md. App 2011) 2207-2009] case in which a young boy was mauled by a pit bull sustaining injuries to hsi face, left arm, nose, and chest and a torn femoral artery in his left leg which required extensive surgery and physical therapy. Pit bulls are already banned in Prince George’s county.
While Maryland sided with pit bull attack victims, the state of Ohio sided with pit bull owners and in May 2012 they removed pit bulls from the definition of “vicious” and thereby generalized “vicious” and “nuisance” without regard to breed, similar to what occurred today in Massachusetts. An activisit group, For the Love of Pits deemed the Ohio law change a victory. Pit bull advocates feel that breed specific bans and additional regulations on specific breeds, most notably pit bulls, is unfair to responsible dog owners and causes more pit bulls to wind up in shelters or abandoned.
Pit bull opponents feel that without these specific bans, unmuzzled or unregistered pit bulls are more likely to cause dog attacks and vicious dog bites that could have been avoided had the animals been properly muzzled and restrained and registered.
Only time will tell how the new law will impact dog owners and dog bite victims in Massachusetts. We encourage you to comment on this post with your thoughts. Are you for or against breed specific bans? Why or why not? Are pit bulls inherently dangerous? What can be done to prevent these vicious attacks?