Government Agencies Are Legally Liable For Some Dog Attacks

Judges and juries have been finding animal control departments, school districts and other governmental entities liable for their negligence in dealing with vicious dogs throughout the USA.

In Tennessee, the County of Knox was required to settle the wrongful death case brought by the family of Jennifer Lowe. The animal control department had made a finding that pit bulls owned by Charles Smallwood were vicious, and had ordered Smallwood to confine the dogs. When the department learned that he disregarded the order, they failed to take further action against him or the dogs. Soon thereafter they killed 21-year-old Jennifer. Wayne A. Ritchie II and I defeated the county’s attempt to obtain summary judgment, and the case quickly settled.

In California, the counties of Fresno and Humbolt, the City of Parlier, and the Parlier Unified School District have been held liable for a variety of negligent acts. A 16-year-old young lady named Krystal Cooney was attacked by a pack of vicious dogs that had lived on a vacant lot at Parlier High School for a decade. She suffered numerous lacerations on her arms and legs, resulting in permanent scarring. Fresno County and the City of Parlier were held responsible for the negligence of animal control officers who had failed to remove the dogs. Parlier Unified School District contended that it had no duty to keep the dogs off of its property. I defeated the school district’s motion for summary judgment, and the case settled. 

The largest case comes from Florida. Daniel Decembre, an Orlando youngster, was horribly disfigured by a pit bull that attacked him on school property. The school district knew that dogs were running into the school yard but little or nothing was done to prevent it. The State of Florida (which pays such liabilities for the school districts) settled for a total of $2 million. 

I represented the dog bite victims in two of the cases mentioned above. The obstacle in all such actions is the government’s belief that it should not be held liable for vicious dogs running loose. There are a number of legal reasons why the animal control agencies MUST be held liable, however. One of the most obvious is the double-bind that ordinary citizens must face when confronted by dangerous dogs: if you kill or injure the dog, prosecutors will go after you for animal cruelty, firing a weapon in the city, or whatever else they can think of, but if you do nothing, the animal control department may also do nothing and the dog will continue to endanger the neighborhood. 

I feel that the duty of animal control departments to rid the streets of dangerous dogs should clearly be made into a so-called “mandatory duty,” meaning that the departments will have to go after vicious dogs as if the dogs were criminals. It also would mean that the departments would clearly be legally liable for injuries that such dogs inflict, if the departments knew about the dogs and had the opportunity to deal with them, but failed to do so. A change in the law, coupled with adequate funding for the departments, would save hundreds of millions of dollars in medical bills and lost human capital. Dogs kill more than 30 Americans per year and send 1,000 per day to emergency rooms. The cost of enforcing the animal control laws therefore is reasonable.