Developments in dangerous dog law
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:
DENVER–Colorado Governor Bill Owens on April 21, 2004
signed into law a bill which allows dog attack victims to sue the
legal owners of the dogs “regardless of the viciousness or dangerous
propensities of the dog or the dog owner’s knowledge of those
tendencies,” but prohibits breed-specific municipal ordinances.
Previously Colorado operated under the “one free bite”
standard established in English Common Law, holding that a dog may
not be considered dangerous if the dog had not previously attacked
Recognizing that the “one free bite” standard is of little
practical use in trying to prevent harm by dogs whose first bite may
be fatal, several states have recently tried to introduce stricter
However, the New York state Court of Appeals in February
2004 ruled in a 4-2 split verdict that a Rottweiler mix who facially
disfigured Matthew Collier, 12, in 1998 could not have been
considered a potentially dangerous dog, even though the dog was
normally kept away from visitors, because the dog had not previously
bitten anyone. The dog attacked Collier while held on a leash by
owner Mary Zambito, who was attempting to introduce the dog to the
Sponsored by state representative Debbie Stafford (R-Aurora)
and senator Mark Hillamn (R-Burlington), the new Colorado law was
praised by the American Humane Association and the American Canine
Foundation, a Seattle-based organization which chiefly opposes bans
on pit bulls.
The bill forced Denver Municipal Animal Shelter to release at
least seven pit bull terriers who were held for being within the city
limits in defiance of a 1989 ban on pit bulls.
On April 26 the Denver city council unanimously authorized
the city attorney to sue the state seeking to preserve the ban,
contending that the legislature violated municipal jurisdiction.
Also on April 26, Jacqueline McKuen, 32, and William
Gladney, 46, of rural Elbert County, pleaded not guilty to charges
of criminally negligent homicide and possession of a dangerous
animal. Their three pit bull terriers on November 30, 2003 killed
Jennifer Brooke, 40, and attacked Bjorn Osmunsen, 24, and
Clifford Baker, 42, before Baker’s son, Baker, and sheriff’s
deputies shot the pit bulls.
Their trial was set for August 25.
The American Canine Foundation claimed another victory on May
3 when the city council in Auburn, Washington scrapped a draft
ordinance that would have classified dogs as dangerous based on
weight, and instead requires that a “dangerous” dog must have
bitten, chased, or threatened a person or domestic animal without
provocation. A dog declared dangerous could only be kept with a
special permit, and would have to carry $250,000 liability
insurance. However, dangerous dog ordinances including exemptions
for “provoked” behavior are notoriously difficult to enforce,
because a “provocation” can include almost any action that brings a
dog attack victim into proximity to the dog on the owner’s property.
In Boston, the Massachusetts SPCA and American Kennel Club
are fighting a proposed ordinance that would require pit bulls and
similar breeds to be muzzled in public.
Anti-chaining ordinances may actually do more to prevent dog
attacks than increased restraint, since from a third to a half of
all fatal attacks on children are inflicted by dogs who are under
restraint at the time. Chaining in particular tends to make
aggressive dogs hyper-territorial, and prevents fearful dogs from
running away from a perceived threat, such as the approach of a
Lower Township, New Jersey, on April 21 became the latest
of dozens of communities to pass anti-chaining ordinances since
Pennsyvlania activist and mother of a toddler Tammy Grimes formed the
organization Dogs Deserve Better to promote them.
Around the U.S., meanwhile, there is an increasing gap
between the relatively light criminal penalties typically imposed for
dog attacks and the awards made to attack victims as result of civil
In Levittown, Pennsylvania, for instance, three men whose
pit bulls mauled eight-year-old Jonas Davis on February 29 were on
April 1 fined $1,400 each, plus court costs and medical expenses.
In Birmingham, Alabama, however, a Jefferson County jury
in August 2003 ordered pit bull owner Billy Charles Luttrell III to
pay $90,000 in damages to neighbor Melissa Williams and her former
boyfriend, Haytham Awaad. Luttrell’s dog attacked Williams in 1999
and again in July 2002. Luttrell’s defense contended that he had
already paid for the second offense with six hours in jail and
restitution totaling $1,100.
In Madison, Nebraska, District Court Judge Patrick Rogers
in December 2003 ordered Akita owner Issidor Psanoudis to pay damages
of $101,573 to Anthony Ahlman and his mother, Delisa Grimm, of
Pender. Ahlman suffered permanent facial injuries in a May 2000
In Rutland, Vermont, a Superior Court jury in March 2004
awarded $45,629 to an oil delivery man who was bitten on the lip by a
tethered German shepherd, and in April 2004 Judge Richard Norton
awarded $95,000 to Lauren Robichaud, 48, for scarring inflicted on
her arms and back in July 2002 by a pit bull belonging to Justin
Geiger and Justin Tanger. The pit bull attacked after Robichaud
knocked on the unlocked door of their apartment in search of her son
and pushed the door part way open.