Pennsylvania Woman Killed By Roommate’s Three Pit Bulls

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.

20 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Woman Killed By Roommate’s Three Pit Bulls”

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  2. My chihuahua and chihuahua mix have never bitten anyone, but even if they did their darndest to kill someone, they couldn’t pull it off. Why would anyone want to own *three* dogs of a breed that has a jaw force and jaw size sufficient for simply one of the breed to kill a human?

  3. None of the articles in PA news that I read about this mentioned how long she had been ‘dog sitting’. The articles did say that she was lying in the yard and the dogs were running around. The also said she had been “chewed on” (partially eaten) which leads me to believe that the dogs were hungry, which led me to question if food had been withheld from them. I have a pit bull that I adopted and I can say that after decades of adopting dogs of all breeds I never met such a big baby as my Pit. He thinks he is a 10 lb lap dog. He is scared to death of cats and if my 25 lb, 17 yr old beagle barks he runs away. Unfortunately there were no witnesses to the event or to what may have precipitated it, so no one will ever know what caused the dogs to act that way

  4. There are no bad, no vicious, dogs. There are only bad and vicious dog owners or dog trainers.
    I offer this not as persuasion or proof.
    There is no evidence, empirical, biological or bio-chemical evidence that so-called Pit Bulls are by DNA bad, vicious or cruel.
    There is abundant, overwhelming and compelling evidence that dog owners and dog trainers are bad, vicious and cruel, which, yes!, results in bad, vicious dogs.
    I have owned German Shepards and Pit Bulls my whole life. I am 71 years old. This was true of my parents, during the time my sister and two brothers were growing up. We grew up around German Shepard’s and Pit Bulls.
    There never was a vicious, cruel, bad or aggressive incident.
    Presently, my wife and I own a 97 pound German Shepard-Pit Bull mix. Kaimana, power of the sea, is the most intelligent, protective, loyal and loving dog.
    Twice little dogs, “rodent canines,” have bitten him and he has done nothing in response. The “rodent canines” were both off leash, one jumped from the driver’s car side window. Multiple people witnessed these incidents.
    One time when my wife was walking Kaimana on leash an 160 pound Italian Mastiff and another time again with my wife was walking Kaimana on leash and very large Doberman Pincher got very aggressive and attacked Kaimana?, my wife? Or both?
    My wife dropped his leash commanded him to sit which he did.
    When both dogs were less than 2 or 3 feet away when Kaimana sprung up and knocked the dog(s) down, charged the dog(s) face to face jaw wide open and teeth flaring and the dog(s), barking (like threatening to bite) and the dog(s) ran away with its tail between its legs.
    My wife called Kaimana to come, to sit, which he did, and she leashed him and walked away.
    Kaimana has protected little dogs from big dogs numerous times, which were witnessed by many lifeguards at Pinetrees at Hanalei Bay on the North Shore of Kauai. He has also licked children, once a baby in a baby carriage, which totally freaked me out. The young mother and father thought nothing of it. This was also witnessed on Weke Road in Hanalei, North Shore of Kauai.
    My wife and I have numerous friends who own Pit Bulls, German Shepards, Rottweilers and other so-called vicious or dangerous dogs. None have ever had a problem or so-called “biting incident.”
    We definitely know some so-called “low life” and even more so-called “high life” people who are anti-social, cruel, angry, unhappy and simply mean spirited … “don’t give a dam.”
    Do they have problems with so-called bad dogs, aggressive dogs and dogs that bite. You bet!
    The most cruel, vicious and murderous species on earth is “Man”, the Human Being!
    Dogs or canines are not inherently cruel, vicious or murderous.
    Only human beings in their religious, political or lust for money, land and natural resources inherently manifest the need to be cruel, vicious and murderous.
    Again, I offer this not as persuasion, advocacy or proof.
    N.B.C.s will, unfortunately, always exist.
    Never Be Convinced forms the basis of the Chosen, Saved and Exceptional.
    In a word, superior.
    dennis hanna

  5. So many people want dogs but don’t train them or care for them properly. After cleaning up after the dog, getting tired of the dog demanding attention, etc. they put the dog in the backyard all day. On the weekends, they yell at it out of the window to “shut up.” Dogs in this environment slowly go crazy. Pit bulls, as well as other, large dogs bred for aggression, big game hunting, guard duty, etc. or serious hunting, who need a lot of exercise and stimulation, must have a strong and consistent hand of discipline as well as lots of stimulating activities. Dogs are pack animals, social animals. They thrive in a pack. When one brings a dog into the home, it is a commitment to be leader of the pack. If one is not willing to do this, don’t own a dog, especially one that can quickly inflict major injury.

    I’ve been bitten a number of times jogging. Let me tell you, dog bites are painful. As the dog is charging me in attack mode, it seems there is always some idiot owner in the yard saying, “Don’t worry he’s friendly.” Now I carry a stick. If you prop the stick in front of you, between you and the dog, the dog will not come into the perimeter. It doesn’t like the idea that you can reach him but he can’t reach you. Carrying the stick has saved me a lot of grief with off leash, hyped-up, uncontrollable dogs whom their “masters,” maybe better tenders can’t control.

    Some dogs can’t have aggression trained out of them. As the famous dog trainer, Barbara Woodhouse, noted, “..such dogs should be put down.”

  6. Hang a cluster of functioning chainsaws on a tree over a sidewalk and let unsuspecting, completely oblivious pedestrians with headphones on perambulate the looming hazard.

    “Here, nice [chainsaw].”

  7. With Trump out of office, I noticed Turley scraping the bottom of the barrel recently. Never expected him to elevate a sensationalized version of “Dog bites Man”

    1. I see why intelligence-challenged commenters like to remain “Anonymous”

    2. Your ignorance & bias are astounding, More stupid folks own dogs than intelligent folks who know how to train a strong dog created or trained to be attack dogs! We can thank the public school system run by leftist teachers’ unions keeping our children deprived of the excellent, competitive education they deserve. Are you one of those?

  8. which could indicate no prior violent or aggressive tendencies

    Meaningless. I know 99.9% of the population anthropomorphize dogs.
    But…dogs are animals. Domesticated yes, but never tamed
    Here in flyover rural America, a dog that bites someone, or goes after even critter being raised on the farm, the dog is put down. Very unceremoniously Zero tolerance.
    Being in my 60’s I have seen it happen dozens of times.

    1. Liberty2nd, you should change your handle to something more appropriate say PUSILLANIMOUS ! Always appropriating anything and seems everything to a political narrative even this tragic story of death. Additionally it’s Bin not Ben.

  9. Are they sure that it was the dogs that killed her? Is it possible that it could have been other animals that attacked her, with the pit bulls having access and maybe disturbing the body afterward? I’m a dog lover and former resident of Pa., and their rules sound reasonable to me. Just one problem with banning “pit bulls” is that there is no such breed, so many people follow that old definition of pornography – “I know it when I see it.” 🙂

    1. The STAFFORDSHIRE Bulldog, named “Pit” because of the common use of the breed as a fighting dog. Most people wont put in any other breed to fight one of them. How many people buy them and set them loose in the country once they get bitten by it? Way too many. How many buy them knowing their vicious nature, and stupidly set them loose in the neighborhood to go potty, then it attacks something or someone, and the owner’s story is “It aint my DOG”. How many own them, and they “keep getting out of the fence” to go on the attack of anyone and anything? ONe might argue that it’s human stupidity that causes the deaths, not the dogs. They say that “Guns kill!” and want to take those away. If they take all the guns, how will we defend ourselves from the pit bulls? They still aren’t saying anything about taking those things away.

  10. Also interesting that she volunteered (apparently) to “dog sit”, which could indicate no prior violent or aggressive tendencies

    1. And they were “such nice dogs, they’d never bitten ANYone. ” So does that give us any hints then, as to the breed’s natural instincts and abilities? And the tendency to “mob attack” in unison, if ONE of the dogs decide to attack.

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