Hawaii Lawmakers Can Help Stop Dog Attacks

Hawaii lawmakers are considering whether to pass new criminal laws about dog attacks. House Bill 2058 would make the failure to control a dangerous dog a felony punishable by five years in prison if the victim died in an attack, or up to one year in jail if the victim survived. (See Bills Introduced for Dangerous Dogs, Involuntary Manslaughter, John Burnett, Hawaii Tribune-Herald, January 31, 2024.)

The problem of dangerous dogs in Hawaii will not be solved unless the legal system makes dog owners civilly liable to compensate dog attack victims from day one. Right now, a victim gets no help from a dog owner unless the dog previously injured someone. Do you see the contradiction: the first victim of a dog mauling gets no compensation, but the dog owner can be put in prison. That means the legislature is all for revenge and punishment, but not in favor of helping the victims. It is unfair to the people who need their medical bills paid, loss of income covered, scars improved, caregivers compensated, etc., etc.

Hawaii adheres to the law of England as it stood in the year 1776 when it comes to dog attacks. British judges created the so-called “one bite rule” in the 1600s to absolve animal owners from legal liability unless their cows, mules, goats, sheep, and dogs had previously harmed someone or something. Presumably, the law was right for its times. However, those times are long gone, and accordingly, dog owners are held responsible in most states for compensating dog bite victims from day one. (See Hawaii Dog Bite Law.)

Victims do have limited rights in Hawaii. They can recover compensation if they can prove negligence, negligence per se, scienter, or an intentional injury. If such proof is lacking, however, he or she will not be compensated for anything, even medical expenses that are not paid by health insurance.

Hawaii lawmakers tried to pass a so-called “strict liability” civil law decades ago, but the Hawaii Court of Appeals, in one of the most backward-thinking and absurd court decisions in history, decreed that the legislature must have meant that they liked the “one bite rule” when it comes to dog attacks. (See the discussion at Hawaii Needs A Properly Drafted Dog Bite Statute.)

The time has come to correct this situation. In addition to the proposed criminal laws, Hawaii lawmakers should adopt the Model Dog Bite Statute to provide the financial remedy against dangerous dogs and their irresponsible owners that dog bite victims deserve.