Animal Control Liability for Dog Bites

Background: animal control agencies in general

The enforcement of laws pertaining to animals is a police function. In many cities and counties, the responsibility is delegated to an animal control department, namely a limited law enforcement agency that is staffed by animal control officers. In some places, animal control is put into the hands of the local humane society which is not a governmental agency at all but which possibility could have some of the legal rights of one. (See Humane Society Liability for Dog Bites here at

The authority of animal control officers to make arrests, conduct searches, and deal with animals varies widely from one jurisdiction to another. For example, officers in one city might carry guns, make arrests and have the ability to conduct dog court hearings and euthanize vicious dogs, while officers in an adjoining city might be unarmed, have the power to do nothing other than write tickets, and be authorized to quarantine a vicious dog that attacks a person, but not to put the dog down. 

The government has a monopoly on animal control. It is illegal for an ordinary citizen to trap, exile or kill dogs that are vicious to people (unless a situation arises in which a dog is reasonably certain to inflict severe bodily injury on a human being, triggering the right to defend oneself or another person). If we shoot a dog in self-defense, we face the possibility that a wrong-headed local prosecutor might file charges against us of animal cruelty or discharging a firearm within the city limits.

Even though this monopoly is justified by the notion that the enforcement of animal control laws is a governmental function, many cities have abandoned it almost entirely. The department might lack the necessary number of officers, proper facilities, working trucks, safe equipment, and legal authority to actually do something in response to a vicious dog or a recidivist dog owner.

Even the adequately supported animal control officers have conflicting mandates: to protect animals from the negligence and cruelty of some people, and to protect people from the dangerousness and viciousness of some animals. This contradiction itself frequently results in chronic under-enforcement of the laws. Consider, for example, the plight of residents of San Diego, California. Its animal control department has engaged in the controversial practice of promoting the adoption of pit bulls. The results have been terrible: the city’s Union-Tribune newspaper has published official statistics establishing that approximately 9% of San Diego’s pit bulls bite people, while the average is 1-1/2% for all breeds. (Read John Wilkins, What’s Being Done About Dog Bites, U-T San Diego.) On November 11, 2012, Remedios Romero-Solares, 30, of Fallbrook, California, was killed by one or more of 8 American bulldog mixes. In San Diego, this was the 4th killing by a pit bull type dog in a short period of time. One can truly say that the no-kill policy applies only to dogs but not to people in San Diego.

Dog pack injuries that animal control could have prevented

The result of animal control under-enforcement can be injuries and deaths. In recent memory, wild dogs and dogs running at large in a pack have injured or killed a number of people. Here are some of them:

1. On April 29, 2000, in Newberry Springs, California, a pet sitter / house sitter named James Chiavetta, 54, left a gate open, allowing a number of dogs to run at large. The dogs chased and killed 8-year-old Cash Carson.

2. On June 10, 2000, Dorothy Stewart, a census worker, was killed by a pack of more than 18 dogs while collecting census data in Indiana.

3. On March 6, 2001, 10-year-old Rodney McAllister of St. Louis was eaten alive by a pack of dogs in the park across the street from his home. (“He was literally eaten by the dogs,” Police Chief Ron Henderson said on the news. “They fed off of him.”)

4. On November 30, 2003, 40-year-old Jennifer Brooke of Elbert County, Colorado, was killed by 3 roaming pit bulls in a barn near her rural home.

5. On December 12, 2003, in Ocala, Florida, 81-year-old Alice Broom was killed in her own yard. She was attacked by 6 dogs and bled to death on the street.

6. On March 8, 2005, in Partlow, Virginia, 82-year-old Dorothy Sullivan was killed on her front lawn by a neighbor’s 3 roaming pit bulls.

7. In July 2006, Jimmie May McConnell of Kansas City, Kansas, was killed by dogs that had entered her yard.

8. On July 31, 2006, John Brannaman, 81, died of a heart attack at Orlando, Florida, after he was mauled by loose dogs in front of his home.

9. On November 3, 2006, 10-year-old Matthew Davis of Dillon, South Carolina was killed by 6 dogs that attacked him outside a rural home.

10. On May 13, 2007, Celestino Rangel, a 90-year-old man in San Antonio, Texas, was killed by two pit bulls that had broken into his home and attacked him.

11. On May 17, 2007, 59-year-old James Chapple, Jr., died in Memphis, Tennessee, due to complications from injuries inflicted by stray dogs running at large.

12. On September 13, 2007, Edward Gierlach, 91, of Iosco Township, Michigan, and Cheryl Harper, 56, of Fowlerville, Michigan, were killed in separate incidents by a pack of bulldogs that were running at large.

13. On October 15, 2007, Rosalie Bivins, 65, died after a pack of 5 to 7 dogs attacked her as she used a walker to get to the mailbox at the end of her driveway. This happened in Oklahoma.

14. On December 25, 2007, in Yermo, California, 45-year-old Kelly Caldwell was killed by up to 5 dogs. They were running at large on the street where she was walking.

Note: all of the above mentioned deaths happened before Krystal was mauled on June 15, 2008.

15. On August 17, 2008, Henry Piotrowski, 90 years old, of Staten Island, New York, died after being mauled by two loose dogs on July 1, 2008.

16. On September 4, 2008, Luna McDaniel, 83, of Ville Platte, Louisiana, died as a result of being mauled by 3 dogs running at large on August 24, 2008. She was collecting cans in her neighborhood for recycling.

17. On March 28, 2009, 48-year-old Gordon Lykins of Winterhaven, California, was attacked by wild dogs near a drainage canal road, a few miles north of Yuma, Arizona. He died on April 10, 2009, from those injuries.

18. On April 10, 2009, Michael Landry, a 4-year-old boy from Louisiana, was killed by a neighbor’s 3 dogs that were running at large.

19. On August 14, 2009, 66-year-old Sherry Schweder and her husband, 76-year-old Lothar Schweder, were killed by an unknown number of at-large dogs near the couple’s home outside Atlanta, Georgia.

20. On December 4, 2009, 70-year-old Lowell Bowden of Lindside, West Virginia, died from injuries that 4 dogs inflicted upon him on November 27, 2009. He was taking a walk near his home, and was mauled beyond recognition.

All of these killings were by packs of dogs. Some of the packs were wild, others were “neighborhood dogs.” These were only the death cases. There are hundreds of thousands of non-fatal pack attacks on Americans each year. The point is that when dogs roam at large in a pack, they are very dangerous. When they are wild, they are even more dangerous. 

Animal control departments have been held liable for dog bite injuries

As a result of the under-enforcement of animal control laws, courts have held animal control departments responsible for the payment of compensation to victims of dog attacks that resulted in part from animal control negligence. For example:

  • The Jennifer Lowe case. On November 12, 2007, pit bulls belonging to Charles Smallwood of Knoxville, Tennessee, savagely attacked twenty-one year old Jennifer Lowe at the entry of Smallwood’s mobile home, from which Smallwood himself was absent. The pit bulls severely mauled Ms. Lowe during the attack, inflicting horrific injuries on her face and body which ultimately caused her death later that day. Attorneys Kenneth M. Phillips and Wayne A. Ritchie II, representing Ms. Lowe’s family, uncovered evidence that the same dogs had repeatedly attempted to bite people, had attacked and bitten a sheriff’s car, had been shot at by police officers in self-defense, and had actually been formally declared to be vicious by the Knox County Animal Control Department. Despite having the legal authority to confiscate the dogs, however, the animal control officers did not do so, up to the time of Ms. Lowe’s horrific death. As a result of the negligence of its animal control department, Knox County was forced to pay substantial monetary damages to her family.
  • The Krystal Cooney case. Attorney Phillips also represented Krystal Cooney, who was injured by a pack of dogs on June 15, 2008 in Parlier, California. The attack left her with permanent and disfiguring scarring on her left arm and both legs. These were wild, vicious dogs that had been living on the premises of Parlier High School. Numerous complaints to the city’s animal control department were met with inaction. The county’s animal control department took some measures to round up the packs of dogs in the area, but those measures were inadequate. As a result, the city and the county, as well as the school district, were forced to pay substantial monetary damages to Ms. Cooney.

Problems that arise in lawsuits against animal control agencies and employees

The requirements for suing any governmental agency or employee, however, can present difficulty to the dog bite victim. A memorandum of law must be drafted at the outset, specifying the legal grounds on which the plaintiff will rely. Generally, an animal control agency can be sued only where it breached a mandatory duty set forth in the state, county or city law, or where it had adequate notice of the dangerous dogs, the authority to remedy the situation, but failed to take appropriate action. The plaintiff is required to notify the city or county within a short period of time following the attack, and to file suit a short amount of time after being informed that the city or county denies liability (which they always do). One should expect that the government then will attempt to defend itself by using all of the immunities that the law provides. For more about the doctrine of sovereign immunity, see Governmental Immunity

A remarkable example of animal control avoiding liability is County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Faten) 209 Cal.App.4th 543 (2012). In that case, it was held that a county ordinance stating that the director of animal control “shall” confiscate any dog constituting a sufficient hazard did not establish a mandatory duty to take custody of the pitbulls that attacked a child. 

Here are some of the reasons to hold liable an animal control department and/or the city or county where a dog mauling took place:

  • Citizens complained about vicious, roving dogs but the authorities did not investigate.
  • The authorities investigated in an incompetent manner, resulting in no action taken.
  • The authorities had the right (or even the duty) to impound the vicious dogs, but failed to do so.
  • The authorities impounded the vicious dogs, but released them without justification.
  • The authorities impounded the vicious dogs, but released them to a person known to used the dogs to commit crimes, or a person otherwise clearly unsuitable to own those dogs.
  • The authorities released the vicious dogs to fosters or residents without warning them or disclosing the circumstances of the prior attacks.
  • The authorities released the vicious dogs with conditions, but took no action to enforce the conditions.
  • The injuries were caused by a significant number of vicious dogs, in a jurisdiction that did not allow a person to harbor that many dogs.

For more opinion and information about whether the existing animal control laws protect our communities or make them less safe, and what to do about that, see Make a Choice: Animal Control or Animal Uncontrol