CAN A CITY CLASSIFY CERTAIN DOG BREEDS AS INHERENTLY DANGEROUS, THEREBY CREATING STRICT LIABILITY FOR THE OWNERS OF THESE DOGS?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Hearn v. City of Overland Park, 244 Kan. 638, 772 P.2d 758 (1989).
This case addresses the following issue:
Can a city classify certain dog breeds as inherently dangerous, thereby creating strict liability for the owners of these dogs?
This case dealt with an Overland Park ordinance which classified “pit bull” breed dogs as inherently dangerous and imposes obligations upon the owners. Id. at 639. These obligations include having insurance covering up to $50,000 for a dog bite, keeping the dogs indoors, and muzzling the dogs at all times when they are outside. Id. Several owners of pit bulls brought this case seeking to have the ordinance declared unconstitutional for being too vague, violating due process, and violation equal protection. Id. at 638.
In September 1987, Overland Park adapted an ordinance classifying certain types of dogs as “dangerous animals.” Id. These dogs have sufficient “pit bull” lineage. Id. at 639. Owners of pit bulls are required to carry hefty insurance, covering at least $50,000 per dog bite. Id. Additionally, pit bulls must be kept indoors at all times. Id. When pit bulls are taken outside, they must be both leashed and muzzled at all times. Id. The practical effect of these regulations is to create strict liability for dog bites by pit bulls. Id. This is contrast to the normal rule in Kansas that an owner is only strictly liable for dog bites if the owner knows the dog has dangerous propensities—known as the “one bite rule.” Id.
The court first determined that the vagueness challenge had no merit, particularly because all the Plaintiffs self-identified as falling with the statute. Id. No Plaintiff had even suggested that he or she didn’t know if the statute applied to them. Id. at 639. This alone was enough to show the difficult vagueness challenge failed. Id.
The Plaintiffs’ next challenged was that such a law violates substantive due process. Id. at 645. To be impermissible under such a challenge, the law must be either “arbitrary, oppressive, or so capricious that it has no reasonable basis.” Id. at 646. This is a very, very low standard, allowing states (and cities) to regulate everything from how loud music can be to how owners must treat their dogs. Id. The court found that studies had indicated that pit bulls are more likely to bite and their bites are often much more severe than other dog breeds. Id. This was sufficient to satisfy due process, allowing the ordinance to stand. Id.
The final challenged was based on the Equal Protection Clause. Id. at 648. However, such laws are upheld so long as the law has some reasonable basis. Id. Again, the statistics presented by the City carried this burden. Id. There were certainly arguments on all sides, but legislative bodies have a lot of wiggle-room in drafting laws. Id. Thus, owners of pit bulls in Overland Park are subject to heightened liability based on the type of dog breed them own. Id.