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  • John M. Williams

Washington Dog Bite Law and its Problems

From what I can tell, Washington’s dog bite statute, RCW 16.08.040 hasn’t been changed since 1941, and well, it shows. With the prevalence of severe dog attacks and bites increasing, it sure seems like our dog bite statute should be stronger and broader. Here’s the Washington statute:

RCW 16.08.040

Dog Bites – Liability.

The owner of any dog which shall bite any person while such person is in or on a public place or lawfully in or on a private place including the property of the owner of such dog, shall be liable for such damages as may be suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness.

The Washington Dog Bite statute is written in terms of “The owner of any dog” which could be much broader. Case law has helped a bit by expanding this to include harborer or keeper of the dog but there’s no reason this change shouldn’t be codified. RCW 16.08.040 also limits liability under this statute to an actual dog “bite”. Other states, including Arizona, have a much broader dog bite statute. The Arizona dog bite statute, ARS 11-1020 states:

11-1020. Dogs; liability

Injury to any person or damage to any property by a dog while at large shall be the full responsibility of the dog owner or person or persons responsible for the dog when such damages were inflicted.

The Arizona statute applies to any type of injury, to a person or even property, by a dog. So if a dog knocks you down or you fall while trying to run away from the dog, you’re covered under the statute. Also, the statute broadens the definition of responsible party. It could be the owner or the person responsible for the dog when it injured someone.

With the number of severe and even fatal dog attacks increasing, there is no reason that Washington’s dog bite statute is written in such narrow terms. It seems like the number of attacks from Pit Bulls and other similar dangerous breeds is increasing, as are the number of people owing these breeds. I realize that many dog owners will take offense to labeling a particular breed as dangerous, but the fact is Pit Bull’s are responsible for the majority U.S. dog bite fatalities. A study from covering a 3 year period from January 2006 to December 2008 analyzed 88 dog bite attacks that caused death. Of those attacks, pit bull type dogs were responsible for 59% (52 fatal attacks). While children are generally more likely to be killed in a dog attack, this study actually showed that Pit Bulls were more likely to kill an adult than a child. During this 3 year period, Pit Bulls more adults (54%), than children, (46%). The study did not state the basis for the deaths of more adults than children, but I would suspect that a Pit Bull’s shear strength is a contributing factor.

Our laws take gun safety and DUI very seriously, both of which can lead to death. However, dog attacks, which can and often do, also end in death, seem to have been placed on the back burner since 1941.

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