Seattle Animal Control officers have broad new powers to euthanize dogs that have bitten someone under a new ordinance passed by the Seattle City Council on Monday. But while the new law had been made in the hopes of better defining what a "dangerous dog" is, its language is loose enough that seemingly any bite-related injury, no matter how slight, can be enough to put a dog on death row.
He does, however, note that the section of the law that defines what kind of injuries a bite victim must suffer in order for the dog to euthanized, is vague.
He also says the new law does nothing to address what is often the more important aspect of dog-bite protection: insurance.
Seattle attorney Christopher Davis says the new dog-bite law does nothing to address dog owners' lack of insurance.
Under the new ordinance, a biting dog must cause a "severe injury" to someone in order to be labeled a dangerous animal and be marked for death or banishment. In defining what a "serious injury" is, the law says:
E. Severe injury means any physical injury that results in
(1) One or more broken bones.
(2) One or more disfiguring lacerations, avulsions, cuts or puncture wounds, requiring medical attention including but not limited to one or more sutures, steri strips or staples.
(3) Permanent nerve damage.
Before the new law was passed, one's dog-bite injuries had to involve broken bones or require cosmetic surgery in order for a dog to be labeled dangerous. Now there are several additional qualifying injuries that suffice, and the only benchmark for their severity is that the injuries "require medical attention."
But what is "medical attention"? It it an ER visit? An ambulance ride? A Band-Aid fished out from behind the victim's bathroom mirror?
"Before, the definition was narrowly defined as needing cosmetic surgery or broken bones," Davis says. "I don't think the city would take action if it was you who just pulled out a medical kit. But someone could argue the other side of that."
In other words: The law is ambiguous. And in court, that ambiguity could lead to claims being dismissed that are warranted, or claims that are unwarranted going forward.
While Davis supports the law in a general sense, he says its principal flaw is that it doesn't address the lack of insurance that most dog owners have, which often prevents dog-bite victims from recouping their losses following an attack.
"The insurance issue is huge," Davis says. "Often the victim is left with thousands of dollars in medical bills. But seven or eight times out of 10, we have to deny the case because the dog owner doesn't have any insurance and don't have the means to pay if we sue."
Davis says a legislative solution would be to require certain breed owners to carry a minimum amount of insurance. Even then, however, he notes that with funding slashed for services like animal control, getting such a shoestring agency to actually enforce an insurance requirement would be a tall order.
At the end of the day, it seems clear that more dogs will be euthanized under the new city law. Certainly some of the dogs will be truly dangerous and a threat to residents.
But when a decision whether a dog deserves a death sentence is left solely to the discretion of an underfunded agency required to interpret vague legal language, there seems little doubt that the gray area between a dangerous dog and one that slipped up once will soon be tested.