The Supreme Court of the State of Rhode Island recently ruled that the owner of a chained dog which violently attacked a Pawtucket city inspector could not be held liable under the state's strict liability dog bite statute or even under a theory of premises liability. (Read the decision in the case of DuBois v. Quilitzsch by clicking here.) The court's decision was based on the wording of the statute itself. The law imposes strict liability when the attack happens while the dog is "traveling the highway or out of the enclosure of the owner or keeper of that dog." On the other hand, there is a loophole: when the victim is within "a fence, physical obstruction or any other condition that gives reasonable notice to third parties that the area is private" then the dog bite statute does not apply.
In making these rulings, the DuBois court repeatedly referred to the fact that in recent times the state legislature had passed other laws regarding dogs but had not modified the state's dog bite statute to impose liability upon dog owners for all bites under all circumstances. "We continue to be of the opinion that any modification to our dog bite law is best left to the General Assembly," the court wrote.
This is a call to action. The legislature should pass, and the governor should sign into law, an amendment to the state's dog bite statute that eliminates the loophole which enables dog owners and their homeowners insurance companies to escape paying fair compensation to dog bite victims. Why should a dog owner be protected from liability when, for example, he chains up a dog (which causes biting) or allows a dog to concealed itself from people who are lawfully on the premises? In the DuBois case, both of those features were present: the defendant had chained up his dog and the dog sprang out at the victim from a hiding place under some grapevines.
The General Assembly of the State of Rhode Island should amend the dog bite statute without further delay. Strict liability for dog bites creates an atmosphere of vigilance, while protecting dog owners from paying just compensation to victims contributes to an atmosphere of injury. In a country that believes in accountability and personal responsibility, it is hard to understand creating loopholes or allowing identified loopholes to continue to exist for people who fail to control their animals. Two-thirds of the American states have dog bite statutes, most of which are unforgiving. There is no justification for forcing dog bite victims to bear not only all the pain, but also all the expense of their injuries.