We have previously discussed animal liability in torts. There is a tragedy in Pennsylvania which could present difficult questions for such cases after Rhoda Wagner, 60, was killed by three pit bulls. She was watching the dogs for her roommate. If litigated, the state’s nuanced dog liability laws would come into effect.
Wagner was found lying in the yard of a home in Miller Township outside of State College on July 28, according to WGAL. The dogs were later euthanized with the consent of the roommate.
It is often said the every dog gets one free bite in American torts. However, the “one free bite rule” is a commonly misunderstood torts doctrine — suggesting that you are not subject to strict liability until after the first time your dog bites someone. In fact, you are subject to strict liability whenever you know or have reason to know of the vicious propensity of your animal. That can be satisfied by conduct such as frequent snapping or aggressive behavior. Indeed, that was the evidence used in the famous case from San Francisco involving lawyers and dog owners Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel. They were found both criminally and civilly liable after their two Presa Canario dogs killed apartment neighbor Diane Whipple. Various neighbors complained about the dogs, which the couple inherited from a convict. Paul “Cornfed” Schneider is a reputed member of the Aryan Brotherhood and was planning a guard-dog business to be called “Dog-O-War.” Three days after Whipple’s death, the couple adopted Schneider as their son. The dogs had not bitten anyone but were known to be aggressive.
Pennsylvania has a quirky set of laws. It does not impose strict liability for any damages as a form of absolute liability. Rosenberry v. Evans, 48 A.3d 1255, 1258 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2012) (citing McCloud v. McLaughlin, 837 A.2d 541 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2003)). The state looks to whether the owner was negligent if he or she knew or should have known of a dog’s vicious propensity.
The state also distinguishes between medical and non-medial expenses. Section 459-502(b) reads that, as it applies to bite victims, “Any cost to the victim for medical treatment resulting from an attacking or biting dog must be paid fully by the owner or keeper of the dog.” So you are strictly liable for the medical but not non-medical costs.
The core defense is generally that the dogs showed no prior vicious propensity and that the victim provoked the dogs. On the negligence side there are comparative negligence and assumption issues. In this case, the victim voluntarily agreed to take on the dogs but it is not clear if there was any indication of vicious propensities.
There is also the question of the status of pit bulls. Many states and cities either ban pit bulls or, more commonly, declare them to be a vicious species. That codified status triggers common law strict liability even if there is no specific law imposing such liability on owners. States like Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Arkansas, Michigan, Louisiana, and Kentucky have breed specific laws barring or limiting certain dog breeds, including pit bulls. Pennsylvania is not one of those states. The state tracks dangerous dogs not breeds.
This case therefore raises more traditional negligence questions. Even under the common law, you must show knowledge or a propensity for viciousness to trigger strict liability. Here the victim clearly believed that the dogs were safe and assumed responsibility for them. That would make liability more difficult than other states.