Massachusetts Dog Bite Case Expands Plaintiffs’ Rights In Injury Cases

Massachusetts dog bite cases just got a little easier to bring in court and to win, at least those involving injuries caused by pit bull terriers. That’s good news for victims of these horrible attacks, which can scar a person for life not only physically, but in cases involving children and other vulnerable victims, emotionally as well.

A recent ruling by the Massachusetts Appeals Court, in the case of Nutt v. Florio, has held that in future dog bite cases involving pit bull terriers, plaintiffs will no longer have to first demonstrate that the attacking dog had a “vicious propensity,” or that it had previously attacked others, before being allowed to argue the case before a jury. Up until now, when bringing suit against a defendant for injuries suffered as the result of a dog bite or dog attack, plaintiffs in Massachusetts needed to first make an evidentiary showing that the defendant “knew or should have known” that the dog had “vicious propensities” or that it had attacked other persons previously. In these types of cases, the defendant is usually either the owner of the dog, the owner of a house where the dog was kept, or the landlord of a building where a tenant kept the dog. When such cases have been brought in the past in Massachusetts, the defendant’s attorney (who, in almost all cases, is actually the attorney representing the liability insurance company that insures the defendant through either a property owner’s or automobile owner’s liability policy) will review the plaintiff’s complaint that has been filed in court. If the defendant’s attorney sees that there is little evidence to support the claim that the defendant knew or should have known that the dog in question had either vicious propensities or had attacked others in the past, the defense will file what is known as a “Motion for Summary Judgment.” This motion is designed to get the case dismissed before trial, because up to present in Massachusetts, a plaintiff had to show that the defendant knew the dog displayed vicious propensities, or knew that it had attacked others previously, in order to bring a case before a judge or jury.

With this Appeals Court ruling, that requirement has now been eliminated – for cases involving attacks by pit bulls. In this case, the court found that a landlord could be held liable for injuries suffered by a 10-year-old boy injured by a pit bull attack, even though the dog had never before attacked anyone, the landlord was not aware of any previous aggressive behavior by the dog, and even though the landlord had no particular knowledge about the controversial breed’s propensities. This ruling means that, for cases alleging attacks and/or injuries caused by pit bulls, injured victims (plaintiffs) will no longer have to show that the defendant either knew or should have known that the dog had vicious propensities prior to the attack that caused the plaintiff’s injuries, in order to argue the case before a jury. It means that a jury will be allowed to hear that this breed of dog is known to be especially aggressive, and that they will apply ordinary standards of negligence in deciding whether a defendant should be held liable for a plaintiff’ injuries. (Because, of course, a lawsuit involving a dog bite is a negligence action alleging personal injuries.)

That is a major departure from previous case law involving dog attack cases in Massachusetts. For at least this breed of dog only at present, this ruling allows injured victims of dog bites to survive a defendant’s motion for summary judgment – a defense technique to get these cases “thrown out” before they ever get to a jury. The ruling does not hold that defendants in future cases involving attacks by pit bulls will be held “strictly liable” – a type of liability usually involving “inherently dangerous activities” or “unavoidably unsafe products” for which few defenses exist (that’s a separate subject) – but it does hold that a defendant’s knowledge of that breed can be a factor considered by a jury in determining whether a defendant was negligent under common-law principles.

What actually set the stage for the Appeals Court to make this ruling, was a ruling handed down in 2008 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, in a criminal case, Commonwealth v. Santiago. That decision involved the constitutionality of a “no-knock” search warrant where police officers knew that a pit bull was on the premises. The SJC ruled that that pit bulls are “commonly known to be aggressive,” and allowed the officers search due to ‘exigent circumstances’ created by the presence of a pit bill at the crime scene. Taken together, these completely separate cases, from two different Massachusetts courts, are critical to Massachusetts dog bite cases, because they make very clear that there is now a recognition among Massachusetts courts that this breed of dog presents a more threatening level of circumstances in dog attack cases.

This case is what lawyers call “good law” (at least plaintiffs’ lawyers like me do). While insurance defense lawyers will rail against this ruling as unwise, the fact is that almost everyone knows that pit bulls are an especially aggressive and dangerous breed of dog. This has been shown time and again, and it’s news to no one. Notwithstanding, the insurance defense bar has said that this decision will impose a difficult burden on property owners, to determine if a particular dog is a pit bull, before allowing it to be kept on their premises. Correct, and why shouldn’t they? While pit bull owners will say that this breed is no more aggressive or dangerous that a poodle, any reasonable person knows otherwise. As a Norfolk County Massachuetts personal injury lawyer, I’d like to ask any insurance defense lawyer who opposes this decision as unreasonably casting pit bulls as aggressive and possibly dangerous this question: “I assume, then, that you would go up to a pit bull and pat it just as easily as you would a beagle or a poodle?” Makes me think of the scene in Erin Brockovich where Julia Roberts, playing Brockovich, laid out glasses of drinking water for each of the defense lawyers who were seated at conference table to discuss the case (involving, of course, drinking water poisoned by a major utility company). As one of the defense lawyers reaches for her water to take a sip, Roberts nonchalantly announces, “I hope you like that water. We got it from the well next to your plant.” The lawyer looks aghast at the glass and pushes it away from her, as fast as she can.

So once again, I assume that every insurance defense lawyer reviewing this decision, will go out and cuddle up to a pit bill? Send me the pictures. Please.