Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My (Brief) Conversation with Dan Rodricks About Dogs

On Sunday, The Baltimore Sun published a column by Dan Rodricks entitled "Two years after Maryland court ruling, pit bulls on attack" in which he criticized the General Assembly for passing a "breed-neutral" dog-bite law that would hold all dog-owners, regardless of breed, strictly liable for dog-bites regardless of whether they knew the dog was dangerous.  Prior to this law (and the Court of Appeals decision in 2012 holding that pit bulls were inherently dangerous), civil litigants seeking recovery subsequent to a dog bite would have to prove that the owner was negligent (i.e., did not take proper care to protect them from being bitten) or that the dog was known to be dangerous as established by previous dog bites.

In the column, Rodricks encourages readers to play a round of "Pit Bull Google" and enter the words "pit bull" and "attack" or "police".  And really, this was what stuck in my craw.  The selective incorporation of supporting facts is what conspiracy theories and fringe opinions are made of.  It is not a good basis for public policy.

Mr. Rodricks then cited a study from the University of Texas that "looked at 15 years of dog-bite data and found that attacks by pit bulls happen more frequently than other attacks, cost more to treat and pose a higher risk of death."  Well there we go.  A peer-reviewed academic study.  But not so fast.  I wanted to learn more about this study, because it very well may have changed my opinion on the subject.  In doing so, I learned that the UT study had an incredibly small sample size of only 29 known pit bulls:

Stated Results of the Study: Our Trauma and Emergency Surgery Services treated 228 patients with dog bites injuries; for 82 of those patients, the breed of dog involved was recorded (29 were injured by pit bulls).

Now, in contrast to "Pit Bull Google", this is a great improvement, but as grounds for changing the law, I'm not so sure.  I took to Twitter:

The response came later that evening:

WHOA!  Out of the box swinging!  Five years of online conversations has provided a strong Spidey-sense on when to disengage.

But not before this love tap:

Public safety?  Are we sure we're talking about public safety?  Or are we talking about helping the plaintiffs' bar?  Strict liability is only helpful after the dog has made its mark.  Sure, we could project back that the increased insurance burden that all dog-owners now face may discourage dog ownership and make extermination a much more likely outcome for "man's best strictly liable friend" in animal control shelters across the state, but I don't think anyone could argue the Court of Appeals decision made us "safer".

What strict liability does is undercut the due care implicit in responsible dog ownership and tells all dog owners "it doesn't matter".  The jury is not allowed to consider the off-setting negligence of the plaintiff in cases premised on strict liability.  Keep your dog in a fenced in backyard?  It doesn't matter.  Dog was taunted and teased before biting?  It doesn't matter.  Dog was defending itself?  It doesn't matter.  And this is good public policy?

I completely agree with Mr. Rodricks that pit bulls, regardless of disposition, are more likely to leave devastating injuries when they bite than other dogs, but it is a matter of comparison.  In the universe of dog breeds, there are dogs that are more dangerous than pit bulls, although admittedly that list is slim.  In the universe of dog temperament, there are dogs of other breeds that are more dangerous than a well-tempered pit bull.  And all dogs are more dangerous than cats.  While drawing the line at pit bulls may sound like a good idea after "pit bull google", in the grand scheme of things it strikes me as mostly arbitrary.

In close, I want to note how much I appreciate and admire Dan Rodricks as a columnist.  He has done more for recently released ex-offenders and the homeless with his column than any law-maker has done with legislation.  I disagreed on this one, but that's the nice thing about the written word.  It encourages point and counter-point.

And I'm an "aspiring politician", Dan.  You can check out my campaign page here.

Have a great Wednesday doing what you love!