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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dog-owner liability laws: Do they have enough teeth?

Three times in the past month, a Twin Cities resident has been attacked by a pit bull, a fact that's been hard to miss thanks to extensive news coverage of the attacks. But lost in the headlines is the fact that dog attacks aren't at all uncommon. Since 1999, St. Paul has recorded an average of about 300 dog attacks (including dogs going after other animals) per year -- that's more than five a week. But because of the relative severity of the attacks, and the reputation pit bulls have for being bred to attack, their stories get more attention.

Odds are, at least one of the recent attack victims will receive overtures from a personal injury attorney, if they all haven't already. It's not hard to find signs of negligence, such as the easily-cleared three-foot fence the owner of the dogs in the most recent attack used to contain them. And it's hard to blame the victims of such a trauma for wanting compensation for their injuries.

Minnesota's laws are unusually favorable toward bite victims. Here, dog owners are liable for damages resulting from attacks, including all medical bills directly and indirectly associated with the attack, psychological counseling, loss of earnings, disfigurement, and pain and suffering. And in Minnesota, the dog's "owner" can be anyone who harbors the dangerous animal, even a landlord who lets the dog onto his property.

Is this a case where stricter regulation of pets such as pit bulls could prevent not only tragic attacks, but also future lawsuits? Or would that be singling out breeds -- again, such as pit bulls -- that, according to many animal experts, are as gentle and loving as other breeds but are made mean by negligent owners?

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