Mass. Courts Increasing Civil and Criminal Liabilities of Pit Bull Owners

Two court decisions in the State of Massachusetts this year have significantly raised the stakes for pit bull owners and those who allow pit bulls to reside upon their premises. These cases will influence other courts throughout the USA.

In one decision, the state supreme court ruled that if a pit bull is on the premises, officers executing a search warrant do not have to observe the “knock and announce rule.” In Commonwealth v. Santiago (2009) 452 Mass. 573, the Massachusetts Supreme Court justified an exception to the “knock and announce” rule for the execution of a search warrant where, among other factors, on the premises to be searched was a pit bull–an animal the court stated was “known to be dangerous and aggressive”–that could be used to confront the officers. Id. at 578.

This week, the mid-level appellate court rendered a decision that has broad implications in the civil law pertaining to pit bulls. The court held that a dog that mounts a person can be considered dangerous, and the fact that a landlord knows that a pit bull is on his or her premises can support a finding that the landlord had scienter.

In Nutt v. Florio (2009) ___ , No. 08-P-81, October 19, 2009, the Massachusetts Appeals Court overturned a summary judgment in favor of the defendant landlord, against a plaintiff child who was a residential tenant at the landlord’s premises, and who was bitten by a pit bull owned by another tenant. The landlord had prior knowledge that the pit bull ran loose on the premises, behaved aggressively, and had mounted the child and his mother several times.

The Appeals Court held that the landlord’s knowledge of these facts — including that the dog was a pit bull — was sufficient to raise an issue to be decided by a jury. Regarding the dog (named “Tiny”) being a pit bull, the court said:

While the defendants may not be held strictly liable by virtue of Tiny’s breed, knowledge of that breed and its propensities may properly be a factor to be considered in determining whether the defendants were negligent under common-law principles.