It's every dog owner's nighmare: Their sweet, well-mannered dog is placed in a stressful situation that causes it to act out unexpectedly, biting someone. The details of such a situation can vary tremendously, but a current case pending in Colorado has highlighted the seeming injustice that can result from a literal interpretation of sometimes conflicting state and local dog-bite laws.
The current controvery centers on Spork, a ten-year old miniature dachshund living with his family in Lafayette, Colorado. Last August, while at the Jasper Animal Hospital for a dental procedure, Spork allegedly became startled by a technician's sudden movement towards him and bit the technician, resulting in facial injuries. As a result of the incident, Spork is being charged by the City of Lafayette with being a "vicious dog," a label that, under CIty law, could potentially result in Spork being put down.
The charges have caused much controversy, centering on issues such as whether an owner must have prior notice of a dog's vicious propensities, whether veterinarians and technicians assume a unique risk in treating dogs, whether Spork, in this case, was handled by the technician in an appropriate matter, and whether the City should have pursued charges under the facts of this case. Spork's case has received nationwide publicity, even spawning a "Save Spork" Facebook page that has already attracted over 10,000 members.
Looking beyond the many emotional issues surrounding Spork's case, one may ask, "Could such a thing happen here?" In Indiana, dog bites can give rise to liability in several diffierent situations, so it's a good idea to have a basic understanding of the legal landscape.
First, Indiana's dog bite statute, codified at Indiana Code 15-20-1, provides in relevant part as follows:
(a) If a dog, without provocation, bites a person:
(1) who is acting peaceably; and
(2) who is in a location where the person may be required to be in order to discharge a duty imposed upon the person by:
(A) the laws of Indiana;
(B) the laws of the United States; or
(C) the postal regulations of the United States;
the owner of the dog is liable for all damages suffered by the person bitten.
(b) The owner of a dog described in subsection (a) is liable for damages even if:
(1) the dog has not previously behaved in a vicious manner; or
(2) the owner has no knowledge of prior vicious behavior by the dog.
(I.C. 15-20-1-3). For purposes of this statute, Indiana has chosen not to follow the "one-bite rule," which essentially provides that every dog is presumed not to be vicious unless and until they have taken their first bite, at which point the owner is on notice. Although this is a so-called strict liability statute, relieving the victim of any need to establish that the owner had previous knowledge of the dog's vicious tendencies, it is, by its terms, limited in application to bites to postal workers and other government employees.
However, the owner of a dog can be charged with a misdemeanor in certain other circumstances, namely if:
(1) the owner recklessly, knowingly, or intentionally fails to take reasonable steps to restrain the dog;
(2) the dog enters property other than the property of the dog's owner; and
(3) as the result of the owner's failure to restrain the dog, the dog bites or attacks another person without provocation, resulting in bodily injury to the other person.
(I.C. 15-20-1-4(a)). Notably, while the decision whether or not to file charges may depend on the victim and the prosecutor involved, state law does require the prompt reporting of any dog bite by a physician, hospital, or outpatient surgical center treating a dog bite injury. (I.C. 35-47-7-4).
Finally, the state law specifically provides that it does not prevent agencies and political subdivisions from enacting their own rules or ordinances on the subject of dog bites, so long as they can be read in conjunction with, and do not conflict with, state law. (I.C. 15-20-1-1). Indianapolis and Marion County, for example, have an ordinance providing that "It shall be unlawful for an owner or keeper of an animal to allow that animal to attack and injure a person who did not provoke the animal prior to the attack." (Revised Code of the Consolidated City and County of Indianapolis/Marion Indiana Sec. 539-109). The ordinance goes on, however, to provide certain specific defenses to prosecution, such as if the attack occurred in a confined, marked enclosure where the animal was kept and the victim was trespassing, or if the attack occurred during the commision or attempted commission of a crime by the victim.
The bottom line is that no one wants to see their dog bite a person, provoked or unprovoked. It is therefore important to be generally aware of your state and local laws regarding dog bites, keeping your dog leashed, and the like. If you have any reason to believe that your dog might be inclined to bite in certain circumstances, you need to take steps to avoid those situations, keeping your dog away from people and/or children when necessary, muzzling your dog in public, and making sure that you are in compliance with all applicable state and local laws and ordinances. As much as you love your dog and feel like it's a member of your family, you do have an obligation to do your best protect your family, friends, and neighbors from injury.
For more helpful information and tips on preventing dog bites, check out the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention web site.