The “off duty” Boston police dog that attacked a Mattapan woman today may just be the luckiest dog around. Under Massachusetts law, the owner or “keeper” of a dog that causes injury to a person is “strictly liable” to the victim for the damages inflicted. In plain words – if you own a dog, and your dog bites someone, the only question to be answered is: how much is the victim entitled to recover. There is no limit to the amount of the recovery the victim may be awarded by a Massachusetts jury – unless of course, the dog happens to be owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Under Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 258 Section 2, the absolute most that a victim may recover from the Commonwealth for personal injuries caused by the negligence of the Commonwealth (or-in this case, its dog) is one hundred thousand dollars – regardless of the extent of the injuries inflicted, including wrongful death. The $100,000 limit, a figure established by Massachusetts law-makers long ago, would not begin to compensate a person who suffers debilitating injuries as a result of a dog attack. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts legislature has shown no interest in updating this antiquated law. In more “civilized” States, such as New York, the liability of a governmental body (such as a city or town) is treated no differently than an individual charged with the very same negligence. Had the victim of the Mattapan attack been the owner of a dog who attacked a Massachusetts police officer (an employee of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) the owner of the dog would face unlimited liability for the injuries suffered by that police officer. The $100,000 cap simply would not apply. This law is outdated, unfair to victims, and should be updated.
Insurance companies that insure Massachusetts homeowners have quietly been reducing, if not altogether eliminating insurance coverage previously available to dog owners. The trend began several years ago when a number of homeowner’s insurance companies began “black-listing” certain breeds they labeled as “highly dangerous”, including Pit Bulls, Doberman Pinschers, American Bull Dogs, and other breeds believed to be more dangerous to humans than other breeds. More recently, however, owners of breeds not listed as “dangerous” have discovered that their homeowners’ insurance policies provided a substantially lower limit of coverage for claims asserted against them when their dog did cause injury. Unfortunately, discovering low (or no) limits of coverage after your dog causes injury to another person, can be almost as painful for the dog’s owner as it can for the dog’s victim.
In Massachusetts, the owner of a dog who bites or otherwise causes injury to another person is considered “strictly liable” for the injuries caused by their dog. The only defense available to the dog owner arises when the victim of the dog attack was shown to have been “teasing or tormenting” the dog at the time the attack occurred. In the absence of evidence of teasing or tormenting by the victim, if your dog bites – you pay! And in some cases, you pay big!
Even a person who does not legally own a dog, but is deemed a temporary “keeper” may be held liable under Massachusettsts’ so-called “dog bite law”.
If you are the owner of a dog, or you “keep” a dog owned by another person, be sure to speak with your homeowner’s insurance company or insurance agent to confirm whether you indeed have coverage for dog-related claims, and exactly how much coverage is available to you “per claim”. If the amount of dog-related coverage is lower than the limits of coverage available to you for other categories of claims, be sure to ask your insurance company or agent whether you can purchase higher limits for dog-related liability. If not, consider moving to an insurance company that can provide you with higher insurance limits.
Parker Scheer attorneys have significant experience representing adults and children seriously injured by dogs. If you or someone you know has been the victim of a dog-related injury, contact us seven days a week at 866-414-0400. There is never a charge to discuss your case. [Read More]
Massachusetts State Senator Stephen Buoniconti has filed a bill calling for the establishment of a dangerous dog registry. According to published reports, Buoniconti was motivated by the recent attack of a 9-year-old Springfield, Massachusetts girl by a bullmastiff. Reports indicate that the very same dog was involved in another attack just last year.
The proposed legislation would allow local animal control officers to compile lists of dogs that have bitten or otherwise attacked humans. The registry would be available via the internet and would include a description of the dog, along with a photo and the name and address of the dog’s owner. The bill would exempt dogs that bite or attack humans who enter upon property without consent.
Under current Massachusetts Law (G.L. C. 140 Section 155: Liability for damage caused by dog; minors; presumption and burden of proof):
If any dog shall do any damage to either the body or property of any person, the owner or keeper, or if the owner or keeper be a minor, the parent or guardian of such minor, shall be liable for such damage, unless such damage shall have been occasioned to the body or property of a person who, at the time such damage was sustained, was committing a trespass or other tort, or was teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog. If a minor, on whose behalf an action under this section is brought, is under seven years of age at the time the damage was done, it shall be presumed that such minor was not committing a trespass or other tort, or teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog, and the burden of proof thereof shall be upon the defendant in such action.
The added benefit of the proposed legislation is that it would allow victims of dog bites to more effectively avail themselves of the punitive damage provision contained in Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 140 Section 159, which provides for “treble” (triple) damages for injuries caused by dogs ordered to be restrained. Currently, victims of violent dogs have a very difficult time proving that the offending dog had a prior history of attacks on humans. Through the creation of the dangerous dog registry, victims could verify whether the offending dog had a violent history and could then seek to determine whether a restraining order had been ordered by animal control. If a restraining order had in fact been ordered, and the order was shown to have been violated by the dog’s owner, the victim would be entitled to have the jury award tripled.
According to the language of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 140 Section 159:
If a dog which the selectmen of a town, chief of police of a city or the county commissioners, or, upon review, a district court, shall have ordered to be restrained shall wound any person, or shall worry, wound or kill any live stock or fowls, the owner or keeper of such dog shall be liable in tort to the person injured thereby in treble the amount of damages sustained by him.
The proposed bill would also benefit those who purchase or adopt dogs, by providing more information about the dog’s history, which is often unavailable through the usual animal adoption process.
Eric J. Parker