This sort of thing has become so routine it’s hardly news any more, but Monday’s online version of The Philadelphia Inquirer carried a story about a dog that “resembles a pit bull” attacking and killing a 7-month-old child in Dayton, Ohio.
It was reported that the same dog had attacked and injured another dog on June 3. For reasons I cannot fathom, it appears that nothing was done to inconvenience the pit bull look-alike after that June attack.
You can almost predict the responses from animal rights fanatics: If a pit bull did something unpleasant, it was not because this type of dog has been bred for centuries to be innately vicious; it probably was because its owners mistreated it or actually trained it to act like that. Even if that argument does not fly, they’ll say it was the victim’s fault; the 7-month-old must have done something nasty to provoke the dog.
The Inky story reminded me of something I had seen in my email and printed out. I thought I’d thrown it away, but there it was, in one of the stacks of paper on my desk. It was a July 10 press release from Thomas Newell of Perkasie, proclaiming himself to be the “Lehigh Valley area dog bite attorney,” who had just achieved a “groundbreaking court decision.”
I tend to take lawyerly boasting with a grain of salt, but after reading the precedent-setting ruling by a Dauphin County judge, I could not help but be encouraged that victims of pit bulls and other dangerous dogs have won a big victory. (On Tuesday, the ruling was one of the top stories in The Legal Intelligencer, a leading publication for and about Pennsylvania lawyers.)
At issue were not pit bulls, but an attack by a pack of boxers. Mandy Bitting of York County, a Federal Express delivery driver, was severely injured in Millersburg, Dauphin County, in what the ruling by Judge William Tully called “a sudden unprovoked attack by three large unleashed dogs.”
On Nov. 21, 2012, after Bitting parked her Fed Ex truck in the driveway of Clifford Schaffner to deliver a package to his front door (as Fed Ex rules require), the boxers attacked, ripping the package out of her hands and then turning on her, mauling her before she could get back in her truck.
That resulted in Schaffner being found guilty, on Jan. 10, 2013, of violating the Pennsylvania Dog Law, and that verdict was not appealed, so it stands. Legal claims for “compensatory” damages, such as the costs of medical care, would not be unusual in such a case. But that is not half of the story.
Newell, representing Bitting, also went after Schaffner for “punitive” damages, which can be enormous, and generally are not covered by homeowner’s insurance. That is where this case is going to have a tremendous impact on the irresponsible behavior of the owners of dangerous dogs.
Newell said the ruling by Judge Tully in favor of punitive damages was based, in large part, on the fact that Schaffner’s boxers had gone after another Fed Ex employee, Joel Rosato, under similar circumstances, prior to the attack on Bitting, and then, just two months after the attack on Bitting, had gone after Rosato again. (He escaped injury both times.)
“Although the dogs had previously pursued another Federal Express worker,” said Tully’s ruling, “defendant’s dogs were not wearing collars, were unrestrained and were unsupervised upon the property at the time of the attack” on Bitting. “Punitive damages are only awarded when a party’s conduct is outrageous,” the judge said, and his ruling means Bitting can proceed with legal claims along those lines.
“This is the first case that I’m aware of in Pennsylvania that allows a punitive claim where there was not proof of a prior physical attack,” meaning an attack in which someone was injured, Newell told me. “It’s a huge precedent.”
(I also contacted the office of Schaffner’s lawyer, but he did not get back to me.)
Newell said boxers are not usually as big a problem as pit bulls, Rottweilers and other dogs with similar traits. He said some breeds, such as dachshunds. Beagles or collies, may bite, but do not generally inflict serious injuries. I asked about my son’s lovable pooch. Golden retrievers, he replied, are generally “very, very docile.”
He said there is “a much higher level of severe injuries from a couple of breeds … [that] have been bred over the years for certain characteristics.” Pit bulls, in particular, have enormously strong jaws, to say nothing of the breeding that results in aggressiveness, sooner or later. Many such dogs, Newell noted, tend to prey on easy targets — small children or other dogs.
While the Dauphin County ruling may be significant for people like Schaffner, Newell noted there still are obstacles in the way of dog bite victims getting justice.
Under Pennsylvania law, he said, landlords cannot be held liable for what tenants do in most cases, so if a renter has a pit bull that hurts someone, and the renter has no assets to be targeted, the victim may be out of luck. That, obviously, needs to change.
Usually, I strongly favor tort reforms designed to limit lawsuits, especially frivolous lawsuits, and I am often harshly critical of contingency-fee personal injury lawyers, such as Newell.
When it comes to the designated Lehigh Valley area dog bite attorney, however, I’m more inclined to cheer.