It isn’t really the federal government’s business one way or the other, but the Obama administration is at least lending moral support to the idea that animal control laws should not single out particular dog breeds as inherently ultradangerous. A court decision in Maryland establishing elevated liability for bites by pit bulls has resulted in continued pressure for pet abandonment and a resulting flow of related breeds into the animal shelter system. [Arin Greenwood, HuffPo; earlier here, here, etc.]
The way Lafayette County, Miss. authorities saw it, Oxford animal rescuer Stephanie Mitchell was in violation of a state law making it a felony to take or carry away another person’s dog. Mitchell says the dog was a stray and that she had put the dog’s picture on Facebook trying to identify its owner. [WMC]
“…so the only thing they can do is give me money”. The $206,000 that Shawn Snider and Beth Bayless-Snider are demanding from Denton, Tex. taxpayers for the mistaken euthanization of their three-year-old black Labrador mix includes damages for loss of “future breeding opportunities”. (“Couple Sues City for $206G After Dog Mistakenly Euthanized”, AP/FoxNews.com, Jun. 2).
Blogger Rogier van Bakel is furious (via Balko (h/t Slim)) at his local SPCA because they would rather put a dog to sleep than place it with his family with small children. See, they’re worried about getting sued if the dog bites one of the children. van Bakel can’t believe it: he’s even willing to sign a waiver!
His anger is misdirected. The SPCA didn’t kill his dog; trial lawyers did. Courts’ failure to recognize the right of parties to contract out of excessive liability means that the SPCA has to protect itself against attorneys, and can only do so if they avoid situations where they might be sued. With 20/20 hindsight, the would-be John Edwards will say to a jury: “The SPCA has placed other dogs that bit small children and has been sued for it, yet they continue to place dogs with small children!”, and demand punitive damages. Between judges who won’t recognize the right of contract when it interferes with a lawyer’s paycheck, and legislative efforts to prevent parties from agreeing to contract out of the high costs of the liability system, von Bakel cannot distinguish himself from the families who would blame the SPCA if a dog-attack occurs. The offer of a waiver does not help: the SPCA can’t afford to take the risk that an adoptive family will renege on its agreement not to sue if the dog attacks a child.
Now, perhaps we as a society do not want shelters to place animals in homes with small children. Or perhaps we do. But shouldn’t that be a decision that rests with a legislature, rather than random chance and a jury? But when a jury has the power to exact uncapped damages, an SPCA has to anticipate the regulation through litigation.
van Bakel and Balko direct readers to other organizations that have not yet been saddled with a lawsuit demanding such practices, but they will surely follow in the SPCA’s footsteps when the lawyers get a hold of them. The long-term solution is to insist on elected officials who will appoint judges who respect freedom of contract, and who will pass tort reform measures that put common-sense limits on the power of courts to interfere with every-day activity. Even now in Congress is debating S. 1782, which would put further limits on the power of consumers to opt out of expensive litigation, and receive the benefits of lower costs and increased choice; while President Bush will veto such legislation, an Obama administration with a Democratic Congress would surely vote it into law.
For more on the Congressional and trial-lawyer campaign to reduce consumer choice, see the Overlawyered arbitration section.
Apologies to Mr. van Bakel for the misspelling of his name in the original version of the post.