Last month, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a dog bite bill that in hindsight seems so common sense, you wonder why it wasn’t done years ago. On its face, it seems like a big win — the new law will allow animal lovers looking to give a shelter pooch a forever home the ability to make an even more informed decision… but AB 588 isn’t all puppies and kittens when it comes to liability.
As it is California is a strict liability state for dog bites, meaning the defendant (the owner) will be held liable if their dog bites someone (the plaintiff), if: 1) the plaintiff was legally allowed to be in the location where the dog bite occurred, and 2) he or she did not provoke the dog. Meaning, if your dog bites someone, you are responsible for paying all damages stemming from said bite. (The statute of limitations for a dog bite lawsuit in California is two years.)
If the two criteria above are met, even if the defendant couldn’t have done anything to prevent the bite, or were unaware that the dog had a history of bites, they will be on the hook. The irrelevance of this unknown history has been particularly problematic for adoptive owners: since a number of shelter dogs are strays, you really can’t know their background. After all, it’s not like you can interview them beforehand to screen for aggressive tendencies. As a result, many times owners are adopting dogs somewhat blindly.
What’s more, up until now shelters and dog rescues have not been required to disclose a dog’s bite history, even if they were aware that it had bitten a person in the past — such disclosure has been strictly voluntary, and at the rescue’s discretion. This lack of disclosure has, to an extent, benefitted the mission of dog rescues: to find homes for as many pups as possible, even the aggressive ones. While that is certainly a laudable ideal — all dogs deserve a happy and healthy home (and all the attendant scritches and treats one calls for) — a great number of rescue dogs are being adopted by families, and it’s appropriate for us to know who exactly we’re bringing home. That’s where this bill comes into play.
In a nominal sense, this strict liability is being extended back to the animal shelter from which the dog was adopted. If a dog has bitten a person, and that bite broke the skin, and the animal shelter is aware of this fact, then the shelter must disclose in writing this knowledge prior to allowing someone to adopt the dog. Failure to do so would be “a violation of [the] law punishable by a civil fine not to exceed $500,” according to the text of the bill.
The main body of the AB 588 bill is as follows:
“This bill would require an animal shelter, defined to include a public animal control agency or shelter, society for the prevention of cruelty to animals shelter, humane society shelter, or rescue group, that knows, to the best of the knowledge of the shelter or rescue group, that a dog, at the age of 4 months or older, bit a person and broke that person’s skin, thus requiring a state-mandated bite quarantine, before selling, giving away, or otherwise releasing the dog, to disclose in writing to the person to whom the dog is released the dog’s bite history and the circumstances related to the bite. The bill would require the animal shelter or rescue group to obtain a signed acknowledgment from the person to whom the dog is sold, given away, or transferred that the person has been provided this information about the dog.”
It’s hard to think anyone could have a qualm or quibble with this bill. It’s truly a common sense dog bite law aimed at giving responsible owners and adopters the opportunity to make informed decisions. Further, it will require the adoptive owner to sign in acknowledgement that they have received this disclosure of the dog’s bite history, effectively starting a paper trail that would follow the pup moving forward.
At the end of the day, it’s a win for adoption. People can be more confident in their decisions, and fido gets a new forever family.
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Check Out These References for Further Reading:
“Dog Bite Prevention.” American Veterinary Medical Association. Retrieved 7 November 2019.
“Preventing Dog Bites.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved 7 November 2019.
“California Dog-Bite Laws.” NOLO. Retrieved 7 November 2019.