MASTERSON ONLINE: Attorney biting back

Kenneth M. Phillips is a different breed of lawyer. The California-based author and attorney specializes in holding negligent dog owners legally accountable for their failure when their animal mauls, maims or kills an innocent person. He's been called the nation's undeniable legal expert and strategist in matters of dog bites.

His website contains an appropriate headline from People Magazine--"Biting Back: When a Dog Sinks Its Teeth In, Attorney Ken Phillips Goes For the Throat."

And business (he doesn't solicit) is nonstop and growing. Phillips routinely partners with local attorneys to file dog bite cases in communities across the nation, only charging clients when he wins in court.

As the author of the online Dog Bite Law (dogbitelaw.com), he not only has compiled mountains of statistics on the types and nature of dogs that kill and maim, but he's also determined that the best protection is a combination of well-crafted laws, governmental policies that support enforcing the laws, and well-funded animal control departments.

In one section of the site (dogbitelaw.com/model-dog-bite-laws) he offers model laws that focus on three different aspects: A Model Dangerous Dog Law, a Model Irresponsible Dog Owner Law and a Model Dog Bite Statute.

In light of injurious and fatal large dog attacks in Arkansas, my interest lies in seeing our state significantly strengthen its dog-bite law which currently essentially allows a dog one free bite before relatively moderate penalties are levied. Too often, one bite is sufficient to kill a person or their smaller pet. It should be the sole responsibility of the dog owner to keep it restrained or face truly serious consequences, period.

Phillips says the purpose behind a dangerous dog law is to identify canines "whose behavior is intolerable to the community's safety, set forth conditions of confinement of those dogs to reduce the risk of injuries to people and possibly other animals and provide due process to the owners of the dogs. In a word, these laws are to take the bad dogs off the streets. The purpose of an irresponsible dog owner law is to identify people who create unjustifiable risks for the public, as well as dogs and other animals. For example, this law would identify a person who frequently has a dog off-leash and impose a fine and possibly other conditions to prompt that person to conduct himself or herself properly."

This certainly would have applied in October when my wife Jeanetta and our 12-pound taco terrier Benji were viciously attacked without warning by an unrestrained pit bull mix as they peacefully walked a neighborhood street.

Jeanetta was injured and Benji spent three days in the vet's office with many puncture wounds and a dislocated leg.

Phillips further says the purpose behind a model dog bite statute is to give victims "a way to be reimbursed for medical expenses and compensated for pain, suffering, loss of income, and other damages. Modern statutes take into consideration the realities that exist nowadays, as opposed to the old laws which allow a person to keep a dog without liability unless the dog previously bit someone."

"Under those old laws, which are referred to as the 'one bite law' and the 'first bite free' law [as we have in Arkansas], you can have a bad dog that bites someone and then replace it with another bad dog that bites someone, and keep doing that indefinitely without ever having to compensate anyone."

"Those three kinds of laws are enforced in administrative proceedings and civil lawsuits, but there also should be criminal laws against dog fighting, negligently maintaining a dog that has been trained to be vicious or is known to be vicious, and violating animal control laws (such as leash laws) more than once.".

Phillips lists dog-bite laws by state on his site. Connecticut, for example, imposes strict liability on the owner or keeper of a dog that damages property or injures a person. The statute also covers non-bite injuries.

Phillips' site also contains numerous facts about dog bites, especially those inflicted by the most renowned biters of all, pit bulls.

For instance, pit bulls killed or maimed 3,569 people in the U.S. and Canada between 2009 and 2018, and killed over 80 percent of all Americans killed by dogs.

A 2019 survey found that more than 50 percent of all pit bulls in the USA are up for sale or adoption. Most of those have been given up by their former owners. That 2019 breed survey found about 4.5 million pit bulls in the United States, making up approximately 5.8 percent of the country's canine population. Forty percent of pit bulls in shelters are euthanized every year.

"From 2011 to 2019," Phillips writes, "14 peer-reviewed retrospective medical studies from Level 1 trauma centers spanning all major geographical regions in the United States ... all report similar findings: Pit bulls are inflicting a higher prevalence of injuries than all other breeds of dogs. ...

"Studies by health-care providers establish that pit bull attacks are associated with higher median Injury Severity Scale scores, a higher number of hospital admissions, higher hospital charges, and a higher risk of death. ... Similarly, an additional study found pit bulls inflict 'more complex wounds, were often unprovoked, and went off property to attack,' and that '[t]he probability of a bite resulting in a complex wound was 4.4 times higher for pit bulls compared with the other top-biting breeds."

Phillips notes that owners of pit bulls are more likely to be irresponsible. "In nearly all the cases in which I have been consulted where a pit bull killed a person, the pit bull owners had no insurance, and therefore the victim's family received no justice in the form of compensation."

And Phillips' statistics tell another chilling story.

Between 2016 and 2021, whenever pit bulls became homicidal, most of the time they killed either their owners or members of their owners' families. This is called "eruscide." ("Erus" means owner or master of the house.)

Phillips writes: "In 2016, of the 31 Americans killed by dogs, 23 were by pit bulls and their mixes, and 12 of those 23 victims were either the owner of the pit bull, or a member of the owner's family. ... The eruscide rate was 52 percent. In 2017, of the 39 Americans killed by dogs, 29 were killed by pit bulls and their mixes, and 18 of those 29 victims were either the owner of the pit bull or a member of the owner's family. .. The eruscide rate was 62 percent.

"In 2018, of the 34 Americans killed by dogs, 25 were killed by pit bulls and their mixes, and 14 of those 25 victims were their owners, the owners' family members, or babies that the pit bull owners were watching. ... The eruscide rate was 56 percent. In 2019, 48 Americans were killed by dogs. Pit bulls and their mixes killed 33, and 13 of the 33 victims were their owner or the owner's family member. In one additional case, the victim was a visiting baby. ... The eruscide rate was 40 percent.

"In 2021, of the 51 Americans killed by dogs, 37 were killed by one or more pit bulls and their mixes (in some cases in combination with one or more other breeds), and 21 of those victims were either the owner of the pit bull or a member of the owner's family. The eruscide rate was 57 percent."

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.