Of Dog Bites, Personal Injury, Town Parks and Governmental Immunity

As a rookie lawyer, I was asked by my boss to interview a prospective client in a dog bite case.  I don’t remember anything about the circumstances of the case, including the breed of the dog, but I do remember his name: “Satan”.  We had no trouble negotiating a settlement with the dog owners’ homeowner’s insurance.  It never ceases to amaze me what some people name their dogs.  I just completed a case in which the pit bull mix which bit my young client was named “Capone”.  I once had a friend whose Dad had a series of terrifying German Shepherds and Dobermans with names like “Rommel” and “Blitz”.

In Pennsylvania, in order to prove an owner’s responsibility for a dog bite, you need not prove that the dog had bitten someone before.  The burden is to show that under all the facts and circumstances the owner knew or should have known that the dog was a danger.  This doesn’t just mean a dog that is prone to biting.  A large, friendly dog that jumps up on people can cause serious harm as well.

I recently read a newspaper article in which one our local townships  announced they were going to begin enforcing an ordinance prohibiting dogs in township parks.  The officials said that one of the reasons was that the township could be liable if a dog bit or otherwise harmed someone.  What the article did not say is that the township, as a local government entity, has a general immunity from lawsuits.  In order to sue a government entity, the plaintiff must fit his cause of action into one of a half dozen or so exceptions to this general rule of non-liability.  These exceptions are strictly construed which means that the courts do not favor them.  None of the exceptions would seem to apply to a dog causing injury to a person in a town park.

I personally don’t see any reason to prevent dog owners from walking their dogs in public parks so long as they are appropriately restrained and not allowed to run free.  In that situation, dogs are no more likely to cause injury than if they are walked on a public street.  Even if they do, a local government entity will not be liable.

By:  Edward E. Houseman, Esquire, attorney for the Reading, Pennsylvania personal injury law firm of Liever, Hyman & Potter which limits their practice to medical malpractice, car, truck and motorcycle accidents, premises liability, nursing home neglect, and work injuries. Serving Berks, Schuylkill, and surrounding counties for over 50 years.

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