Bill would put more teeth in dog-bite regulation
By JOHN S. ADAMS Tribune Capitol Bureau
March 19, 2009
A Senate panel on Wednesday heard lively testimony on a measure that would stiffen and expand liability for dog owners whose pets injure someone.
Rep. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, said the measure is designed to do away with the "one-free bite" loophole and expand the law to dogs living outside city limits. Under existing law, only dog owners who live within city limits are liable for damages caused by dog bites. Dog owners who live outside city limits are not considered liable if their dog bites someone for the first time.
The proposed law also would extend liability to people who have a financial or proprietary interest in a dog and would provide specific protections for children. Under the proposed measure, if a dog bites anyone younger than the age of 9, it is presumed to be an unprovoked attack.
House Bill 431 also changes key language in the current statute from "bite" to "injure," thus broadening the scope of liability for dog owners. Blewett said he believes the owner of an overly anxious dog should be liable if the animal jumps on someone and the person falls and is injured.
"The question, public policy-wise, is who should have to pay for that injury? Who's got to pick up the tab there?" Blewett asked the committee.
Opponents of the bill, including dog owners, several attorneys and representatives from the insurance industry, said the proposed measure is an overly broad expansion of the so-called "vicious dog" law. They say the bill would result in higher insurance rates and would impose an unreasonable burden on all dog owners.
"What I think people in Montana want is a law that makes it unacceptable to own a dog that would bite," said dog-owner Bob Branson.
He said Blewett's bill does nothing to address problems with vicious dogs, instead creating a strict liability for the owner of a friendly dog that might accidently injure someone.
The measure easily cleared the House with nearly three-quarters of lawmakers in that body voting in favor of it. On Wednesday, it appeared unlikely the measure would pass the Senate Judiciary Committee in its current form as some committee members expressed concern over the expansion of the language from "bite" to "injure."
"What you've done is you've taken the vicious dog rule, which relates to vicious dogs as opposed to clumsy dogs, and made an entirely new statute," said committee Vice Chairman Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor.
Concerns over the potential rising cost of homeowners' insurance also weighed heavily with some committee members.
Representatives of the insurance industry told the committee that rates are based on the cost to the company to provide insurance policies.
"If this bill results in more, and/or more expensive claims against a homeowner, it will inevitably increase the price of that product," said Greg Van Horssen of State Farm Insurance.
Several members of the committee said they are willing to support amendments to the current law that would expand the existing vicious dog statute to cover the entire state, not just dogs within city limits. That would eliminate the "free-bite" loophole in the existing statute, they said.
Blewett said he would like to see the measure expand liability to include injuries beyond just bites, but added he would support an amendment that only expands the current law to include the entire state.
"If you think (dog owners) should be only liable for bites, that's fine," Blewett said.
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.