Police Dog Bite Lawsuits Harder to Win with New Law

Washington state law states that when a dog bites someone, the owner of the dog is legally held liable for any injuries that person may have suffered as a result of the dog bite. This is a concept called strict liability and it applies to any and all dogs in the state.

Well, it did apply to all dogs in the state until last year, when the 2012 Legislature passed a law – Substitute House Bill 2191 (HB 2191) – that exempted the owners of police dogs from dog-bite liability in the event of injury from an attack.

Prior to June of 2012, a city’s liability in instances where an innocent victim is bitten by a dog was assumed. Since the law went into effect, however, victims will be required to prove that the dog bite resulted from some form of negligence on behalf of the city.

Who is Affected by New Dog Bite Law

Craig Adams, the key author of the amendment and former adviser to Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, says he was told that police agencies “all over the state” were being targeted in fraudulent lawsuits from inmates injured from police dog bites.

Sen. Ann Rivers, who sponsored HB 2191, contended during a recent committee hearing that the law is aimed to counter a “cottage industry that’s popping up, where criminals can sit in jails and write frivolous lawsuits against municipalities because police dogs are labeled vicious animals for the job we ask them to do.”

But there is a fair amount of confusion over the claims made by Adams and Rivers, mainly because the numbers contradict their statements. According to the Seattle Times, Pierce County has paid out nearly $600,000 to settle K-9 dog bite claims in the last three years, but nearly all of that has been to innocent civilian bystanders, not criminals who were attacked by police dogs.

And in a review of five years of dog bite claims in more than 100 cities and counties in Washington state, the Seattle Times found that there have only been three total settlements – totaling $46,455 – paid out to criminals who have been arrested and filed a claim for injury after the fact.

Many victims’ rights proponents say that this law only makes it more difficult for innocent victims of police dog bites to find justice. Since it raises the burden of proof, it seems like that is a fair conclusion to make. Either way, it will be interesting to see how this impacts the success of dog bite claims in Washington in the future.

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