Owners of aggressive dog breeds could face criminal, civil repercussions

March 30, 2012 at 11 p.m.
Updated March 30, 2012 at 10:31 p.m.

If dog owners know their animal is dangerous and do not take proper precautions, they could face criminal or civil liability.

A pit bull killed 4-year-old Kylar Johnson earlier this week in a backyard south of Victoria.

A Victoria Animal Control Services official said the agency had never received a complaint against the dog owners before the attack on Kylar.

"The question is whether the owner knew or should have known the dog was dangerous and failed to take reasonable precautions," said attorney Jim Cole, of Cole, Cole & Easley law firm in Victoria. "Everyone knows kids are attracted to animals. If there was no enclosure and nothing to keep the child from approaching the dog, the land owner could certainly be responsible for that."

However, he said, dog owners are not responsible for an attack if they had no reason to believe the animal was dangerous.

There are two legal sides to any dog attack: civil and criminal.

Criminally, animal control authorities have the authority to deem a dog dangerous.

Under state law, a dog is dangerous if it makes an unprovoked attack on a person and causes bodily injury and the attack is in a place other than an enclosure where the dog was being kept or if it commits unprovoked acts in a place other than an enclosure in which the dog was being kept.

If a dog is deemed dangerous, it is the owner's responsibility to do the following: Register the dog with the animal control authority; restrain the dog at all times in the immediate control a person or in a secure enclosure; obtain liability insurance coverage on the dog in an amount of $100,000 to cover damages resulting from an attack by the dog that causes bodily injury to a person.

Failure to comply with these regulations could result in the dog being put down humanely and its owners being charged with a Class C misdemeanor for the first offense and a Class B misdemeanor for the second offense.

Cole likened dogs that are restrained but not in secure enclosures to being an attractive nuisance such as an unsecured swimming pool.

"Owners of dogs that have the possibility of being dangerous have a responsibility to the public to have an enclosure. Keep the dog inside the enclosure and keep children from getting inside the enclosure and being exposed to the dog," Cole said.

When it comes to local regulation of dangerous dogs, a county may place additional restrictions on dangerous dogs as long as they are not breed-specific.

Texas is a "one free bite" state, meaning the owner of a dog may be free from liability if it is established that this was the first time the animal had shown any aggressive tendencies.

Dog owners can protect themselves in civil cases by purchasing liability insurance.

Under State Farm Insurance, the liability portion of both renter's and homeowner's insurance policies will also cover damage inflicted upon someone by a domestic pet, said Claire Santellana, account manager at State Farm.

Personal liability umbrella policies starting at $1 million also are available to cover policyholders.

However, a growing number of insurance carriers are opting not to cover traditionally aggressive dog breeds.

Judy Turner, an independent insurance agent for the past 28 years, said almost all the insurance companies her company works with have chosen during the past 10 years to exclude breeds such as pit bulls, Rottweilers, and German shepherds from their coverage.

Lying about an animal's aggressive past could be tantamount to insurance fraud, Santellana said.

"There's no law that you have to get insurance just because you have a dog," Turner said. "But as long as you do have a normal, friendly pet, the insurance company does not exclude coverage."



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