In the course of the Dallas dog bite hysterics of the last month, people have said a lot of totally crazy things about pets and people, but it’s important for you and me to remember one big thing about any dog we own. If that dog has ever bitten before and does it again, we’re toast.
Forget dog rehabilitation. You need to start thinking more in terms of whether you and the family will be homeless.
Yes, I know: Dog advocates recently talked City Hall into sparing the life of a dog that had bitten a child in the face, requiring multiple stitches, even though the same animal had attacked humans twice before. Fine. That’s one thing.
Give me eight crazy-neighbor types from central casting and two picket signs, and I can talk City Hall into stripping naked and doing the hula. Here’s what’s important to know about that: City Hall is not the law. Thank goodness.
The law in this area comes from a 1974 Texas Supreme Court case involving two guys who lived in Dallas. Although they lived here, both men, Paul Marshall and John C. Ranne, made their livings on neighboring hog farms in Van Zandt County.
Ranne had a vicious boar that kept getting through the fence onto Marshall’s farm. The case has a lot of wonderful East Texas culture in it, but the final decision speaks directly to what’s going on now in Dallas.
Ranne’s boar was so mean and so aggressive that Marshall and his wife had to scout for it every time they stepped out of their house. On several occasions, the hog held Marshall captive in his own outhouse.
Marshall finally put a note on Ranne’s gate saying, “John, your boar has gone bad. He is trying to chase me off the farm. He stalks us just like a cat stalks a mouse every time he catches us out of the house. We are going to have to get him out before he hurts someone.”
The hog finally caught Marshall unaware, mangling his hand. There was debate later about whether Ranne saw the note before the mangling.
Ranne visited Marshall in the hospital and offered an East Texas expression of commiseration and regret: “I knew the bugger was mean," Ranne told Marshall in the hospital. “Why didn't you kill him?"
When Marshall sued him, Ranne’s defense was consistent with a lot of the things I have heard people say in defense of the animals in two recent dog attacks in Dallas, one in Deep Ellum and the second in Klyde Warren Park during a dog adoption event. Defenders of the dogs in those attacks have argued that the children or their parents contributed to the attacks by their negligent behavior.
Ranne won a trial court decision and an appeal by arguing that Marshall was negligent — essentially made his own bed — because he walked around his farm knowing the hog was out there. He should have got his gun, Ranne said, and shot the damn thing.
Overturning the lower court decisions, the Texas Supreme Court observed that Marshall had an inherent right to walk around on his own farm and also that shooting the hog, although it had been attacking him serially, could have exposed Marshall to criminal charges under stringent Texas laws protecting livestock.
But none of that was at the core of the Supreme Court decision, nor is it what you and I need to focus on when we think about our dogs. Instead, the court grabbed up an entire basket of lower court decisions over the years on liability and vicious animal attacks and observed that the decisions fell into two distinct camps.
One set of decisions was based on a legal doctrine called common-law liability; the other decisions said animal attacks came under something called strict liability. What you and I need to know is that under common-law liability, you can argue that the injured party brought it on himself by acting stupid. We could argue, as some people have in the Klyde Warren case, that the parents weren't properly supervising their child (a claim the parents in that case vigorously deny). And that might get us off or part of the way off.
Under strict liability, forget about it. That’s our dog. If we had any reason to know or believe that the dog could be vicious, we’re on the hook. The only way we’re not totally responsible is if the other person did something the law calls “voluntary assumption of risk.”
In the farmer’s case, that would be this: “I know that damn hog is going to attack me, but guess what! I’m sick of hiding in the outhouse! I’m going to stand right here, dare that bad boar to come after me, and I’m going to take him on barehanded without my gun.”
In Marshall v. Ranne, the state Supreme Court ended the debate between common law and strict liability in animal attacks. From that point forward, the court said, common law was out and strict liability in.
In the case of pets, especially dogs, the owner is totally on the hook if the dog bites somebody unless the owner can prove the victim is some kind of insane dog-fighter who gets into unarmed fights with mean dogs on purpose. And I’m sure we can agree the insane dog-fighter profile is unlikely ever to include children.
If you know the dog has bitten before, it almost doesn’t matter how negligently the dog-bite victim may have behaved before the bite. You should have put the dog down after the first bite. That’s on you.
The vast majority of people I know who keep dogs know all of this. If they haven’t read up on the law, they know it anyway from moral instinct. Dogs are animals. It is our choice to keep them and to bring them into the company of other human beings. Of course we are totally responsible for what our dogs do.
Children are especially problematic around all animals — cats, dogs and parakeets alike — because children are idiots. These are the same people who walk in front of buses and spit food on people. I feel sorry for the animals. I really do. In many ways, I’m way more pro-dog than pro-baby.
I was at a house once when the homeowners realized they hadn’t seen their cat in a couple of hours. The parents were kneeling on the kitchen floor in front of a sullen, thumb-sucking 3-year-old, pathetically wheedling: “Baby, it’s very important for you to tell Mommy and Daddy what drawer you put Bootsy in.”
Kids are monsters. But as I have argued here a couple of times already, wherever the interests of animals and children collide, the kids come out way first, always, monsters or not.
Where all of this comes down in practical terms in Texas is something called the “one-bite rule.” Basically, the dog gets what golfers call a mulligan — one freebie. The dog bites somebody. Now the owner knows the dog is a biter.
In the debate over the Deep Ellum dog — the one the city spared even though it had attacked three people — the dog's defenders said a great deal about rehabilitation. Why should the animal be destroyed, the advocates asked, when it could be rehabilitated instead?
If it’s your dog, here’s why. You may be convinced your dog has been rehabilitated and will never attack again. If you’re lucky, you’re right. You won’t have a problem.
But if you’re wrong and that dog does what a lot of rehabilitated human beings do under stress — backslides — you are litigious toast. It’s your dog.
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You knew it bit before. You elected not to have it put down. Now it doesn’t matter if a kid sticks his little mitt right into the dog’s mouth. Whatever ensues is your fault.
By the way, after you read this, you should go online and Google “Dallas dog-bite lawyers.” Wow. It looks to me like a whole bunch of lawyers out there probably are sending their kids to surfing school in Hawaii on dog-bite verdicts alone. And the good dogs in Dallas probably are safer for that.
I’m serious. Let’s not allow this debate over dog bites and rehabilitation to lead us astray, and let’s especially not imagine that City Hall’s cave-in on the Deep Ellum dog means anything.
One bite. That’s not what the dog gets. That’s what you get. After bite No. 2, you need to get that house on the market and sell your newest vehicle because those guys you just Googled are coming for you.