Dog Bite Prevention and Breed-Specific Legislation: Breed or Deed?

As Dog Bite Attorneys, Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. recognizes that breed-specific legislation has been a highly debated topic in the Illinois, specifically in regards to pit bull and rottweilers. However, the state has continued to reject the necessity, effectiveness and constitutionality of statewide breed-specific legislation (BSL) for more than a decade, stating “it’s the deed, not the breed.” While local municipalities have the authority, granted through ‘home rules,’ to enact ordinances to regulate the residents within the boundaries of their jurisdiction, there are currently only a handful of cities and villages in Illinois that have BSL in place. While this may change in the future, questions remain regarding the benefit of polices that completely restrict a particular breed, which many equate to the efficacy that gun-control and drug laws have had on thwarting the actions of persons that engage in unlawful drug or gun related activities.

Some argue that the more worthwhile focus is to focus on responsible pet ownership, as opposed to public policy changes based largely upon breed-related fatality data. Some remain adamant in their stance that outright breed-based bans or restrictions will aide in the prevention of injuries and fatalities. Others say that dog-specific behavioral-based ordinances (i.e. restricting dogs deemed as dangerous or vicious) are the best approach in preventing fatal attacks. Many have views that fall somewhere in between, as do ours.

From the personal injury perspective, banning certain breeds will prevent at least some attacks, however, this is wholly dependent on the dog owner’s compliance with the law. Further, banning certain breeds will not eliminate the presence of thousands of dogs, owned prior to enactment of ban laws. Therefore, if the legislative goal is the prevention of dog-bite related injuries and fatalities, the immediate impact of outright restrictions would be minimal at best. Perhaps more practical is a less-restrictive approach, such as legislation that imposes liability insurance; increased licensing fees; and/or enclosure, signage, restraint or muzzle requirements, whether breed-based or dog-specific, as opposed to outright bans on specific breeds.

In particular, an insurance based legislative approach seems to offer more benefits. Firstly, in terms of practicality (i.e. affordability), requiring liability insurance does not place an undue burden on pet owners, given that most renter’s and home owner’s policies offer the inclusion of pet liability coverage for a nominal fee. Further, imposing insurance requirements seems to be the more humane approach, as opposed to requiring otherwise non-aggressive dogs to be muzzled, restrained by a short or leash, or confined to the boundaries of their owner’s property. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, liability coverage offers a means of legal recourse, by providing dog bite attack victims a source from which to obtain compensation directly from an insured dog owner, and in some cases even from landlords that knowingly permit an uninsured dog/dog owner to remain on the property they control.

Although we do recognize that not every dog owner required to carry liability insurance will adhere to the law, BSL that is centered on insurance may be the most pragmatic solution, in comparison to alternatives that completely ban or excessively restrict certain breeds. In short, some dog owners will break the law and dog bite attacks will continue to occur—regardless of what restrictions or bans are in place. Consequently, while incident prevention is certainly important in terms of public safety, at the same time we must also consider the value of legislative efforts in providing victims with compensation sources as well.

Additional considerations include which breeds would banned, the data/research/manner that might be used to determine banned breeds, as well as classification methods for cross and mix breed dogs. In ‘Dogs with a Fatal Bite,’ we discussed a CDC study which summarized human dog-bite related fatalities in the U.S over a 20-year period. We find this report especially compelling, given its recognition of the complexities involved in enacting BSL, stating that:

“Although fatal attacks on humans appear to be a breed-specific problem (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers), other breeds may bite and cause fatalities at higher rates. Because of difficulties inherent in determining a dog’s breed with certainty, enforcement of breed-specific ordinances raises constitutional and practical issues. Fatal attacks represent a small proportion of dog bite injuries to humans and, therefore, should not be the primary factor driving public policy concerning dangerous dogs. Many practical alternatives to breed-specific ordinances exist and hold promise for prevention of dog bites.”

Provided with the foregoing, it would seem unfair to impose a ban on dogs based solely upon breed, which essentially places a restriction on where the owners of specific breeds can lawfully reside with their dog, and offers little in terms of both long-term and short-term benefits.

Consider the immediate impact that newly implemented breed-specific legislation would have on preventing injuries and fatalities, given the sheer quantity of Chicago residents that already own breeds most likely to be restricted (pit bulls and rottweilers)—at best, it provides means of compensation only to victims that were attacked by the type of breed required to carry insurance, and the dog’s owner adheres to the law and actually secures a liability policy.

Further, the long-term effect of breed bans may actually serve to limit compensatory sources that were previously available to dog bite attack victims, given that restricted breeds that are ‘grandfathered’ in will eventually die, thereby essentially limiting the availability for victim to obtain compensation through pet liability insurance to (1) owners of dogs that have been previously deemed to be aggressive, dangerous and/or vicious through formal proceedings, and who actually obtain the required insurance; and (2) dog owners that voluntarily choose to carry pet liability insurance.

As a final contention, and stated from the position as both attorneys and animal-lovers—the prevention of dog bite fatalities does not seem to reside within an outright ban. Despite Pit-bull, Rottweiler, German Shepard (and mixed breeds of each) accounting for a significant portion of dog bite injuries and fatalities—would a full-ban on such breeds really be fair to responsible dog owners, and to what extent would such policy implications provide legal recourse to victims in the long run?

If you were bitten or attacked by a dog or other animal, contact the Chicago Dog Bite Injury Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. at 773-516-4100, to discuss your legal rights and options, as well as entitlement to compensation.