Charges don’t require any previous finding by a dog warden or a court that the dog is “dangerous.”

In a recent opinion, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that an Ohio dog owner can be criminally charged if the owner fails to contain or control a dog that has a history of being dangerous. State v. Jones, 2019-Ohio-5159. The dog does not have to have been previously designated as dangerous by a dog warden, and the owner does not have to have been given an opportunity, prior to being charged, to demonstrate that the dog isn’t dangerous.
Dog Bites
The state can now charge the owner with failing to contain and control a dangerous animal, a fourth degree misdemeanor, based on evidence of any one of the following:

  • The dog previously caused a non-serious injury to a person;
  • The dog previously killed another dog; or
  • The dog has been the subject of at least three prior violations of the law requiring its owner to confine or control the dog.

Although a criminal conviction is not necessary to pursue a personal injury case against the owner of a dog that has bitten someone, a conviction based on a dog’s classification as “dangerous” can bolster a victim’s claim that the owner was negligent. At Slater & Zurz LLP, we’ve successfully handled countless dog-bite cases across Ohio. We have offices in Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. If you’ve been bitten, call or email our team for a free consultation with a dog bite attorney. We’ll evaluate your claim, answer your questions, and recommend what we believe is the best way to proceed. If we take your dog-bite case, our services are free of charge unless and until we obtain a favorable settlement or win your case at trial.

Dogs are no longer classified based on breed.

Before 2012, dogs in Ohio were classified by breed: some breeds, such as pit bull dogs and others commonly referred to as pit bulls, were presumed to be potentially dangerous, while other breeds were treated as safe.

In 2012 Ohio stopped singling out certain breeds of dogs as likely dog-bite offenders, and instead established penalties for “nuisance,” “dangerous,” and “vicious” dogs. The new laws established requirements for liability insurance for owners of “dangerous” and “vicious” dogs, and empowered dog wardens to designate any dog as “vicious” or “dangerous.”

  • A “vicious” dog is one that, without provocation, has killed or caused serious injury to any person. There are two exceptions: (1) a police dog that killed or injured someone while assisting law enforcement officers; and (2) a dog that killed or seriously injured someone attempting to commit a crime on the dog’s owner’s property.
  • A “dangerous” dog is one that, without provocation, has caused non-serious injury to a person; has killed another dog; or has been the subject of at least three prior violations of the law requiring the owner to confine or control it. The same exception for police dogs, applicable to vicious dogs, applies to a dog facing a classification of “dangerous.”
  • A “nuisance” dog is one (other than an on-duty police dog) that without provocation, and off its owner’s property, has chased or approached a person in a menacing fashion or has attempted to bite or otherwise endanger any person.

When on the owner’s property, a dangerous dog must be securely confined in a locked pen that has a top or in a locked, fenced yard. When off the owner’s property, a dangerous dog is legally required to be secured in a locked pen with a top, leashed, or muzzled. A dangerous dog’s owner must maintain liability insurance to cover injuries caused by the dog. The same requirements apply to vicious dogs.

Brief history of the Jones case

The December 17, 2019 Ohio Supreme Court opinion in Jones ended nearly four years of litigation arising from a Cincinnati woman’s claim that the defendant’s pit bull had bitten her hands and wrists when she was outside with her own dog. An Ohio statute prohibits a dangerous dog’s owner from
removing the dog’s leash while in public. The defendant had released the pit bull from its leash when a stray dog came into the area.

The municipal court found the defendant guilty of failing to confine a dangerous dog, and gave him a suspended 30-day jail sentence, six months’ probation and a $100 fine. The judgment and sentence depended upon the dog’s classification as a “dangerous dog.”

The defendant argued that he could not be guilty of failing to confine a dangerous dog because his dog had not previously been labeled “dangerous” in a formal court setting—either (1) a civil proceeding in which the owner is given notice that a dog has been classified as dangerous, and afforded an opportunity to challenge that classification, or (2) by a judge in an earlier proceeding based on the owner’s failure to confine that specific dog.

The court of appeals agreed with the defendant, and overturned the defendant’s conviction on the ground that the dog had not officially been declared “dangerous.” The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a prior finding that a dog is dangerous is not necessary to sustain an owner’s conviction for failing to contain or control a dangerous dog. However, in such a case, the prosecutor must demonstrate that the
dog is dangerous.

Because the state failed to provide evidence that the defendant’s dog was in fact dangerous—i.e., that the dog had injured a person, killed another dog, or was the subject of at least three violations of the law requiring its owner to confine or control the dog—the Ohio Supreme Court upheld the court of appeals’ judgment overturning the defendant’s conviction.

This case had been watched with interest in light of concern that a decision adopting the dog owner’s argument could limit owners’ liability. This could have effectively tied the hands of Ohio courts in cases where dogs that attacked someone had not yet been formally labeled as “dangerous.”

The Klonda Richey tragedy

Ohio has seen some very serious dog attacks and fatalities in recent years. In February 2014, Klonda Richey was mauled to death in her driveway by a pair of mixed breed mastiffs belonging to her neighbors. In the two years before the 57-year-old Dayton woman’s death, she had contacted local
officials dozens of times to report her concerns about the behavior of the mastiffs.

She reported that she was a captive in her own home. The dogs were frequently allowed to run loose, and often entered onto her property and acted in a menacing manner. Four hours after the attack, the dogs were shot to death when they attacked police officers responding to the incident. The dogs’ owners were sentenced to less than six months in jail, 500 hours of community service, and a combined
$700 in fines.

Before the tragedy, the dog warden had adopted new policies against citing owners for failing to confine or control their dogs, and began routing dog-related complaints directly to voicemail. Richey’s complaints went to voicemail, and no citations were issued to her neighbors. Written warnings were left at their residence, as the door was never answered. Nothing more was done.

Her survivors sued the dog warden for breaching his duty to protect Ms. Richey. The common pleas court dismissed the complaint on the theory that the dog warden could not be liable for the dogs’ attack. According to that court, only an owner, a “keeper” with physical control over the dogs, or a “harborer” who permitted the dogs to be kept on his or her property could be sued. The court of appeals reversed. That court stated that if the warden owed a special duty to Ms. Richey under the particular circumstances of the case, her survivors could have a viable claim against the warden.

In the six years since the Richey attack, local and state lawmakers have tried to no avail to strengthen Ohio law governing “dangerous” and “vicious” dogs. Three bills named after Richey failed to gain momentum in three previous legislative sessions. One died in committee in 2014, another failed to win final approval in 2016 and a third failed in 2018. In 2019, State Rep. Niraj Antani of Miamisburg became the fifth Ohio lawmaker to take on the issue, introducing a bill calling for measures that would further protect people from potentially dangerous dogs:

  • Investigation or follow-up on every call to a dog warden;
  • A requirement that dog owners respond to wardens’ warnings left at their home about their
    dogs;
  • The allowance of witnesses to give sworn statements regarding dog attacks on people;
  • Increased penalties when dogs seriously injure or kill a person or kill a companion animal.

A woman whose 8-year-old daughter was knocked down, dragged, and bitten on the head by a neighbor’s pit bull in July, 2018 testified in favor of the bill. The child suffered a skull fracture, nine deep lacerations to her head, severed nerves, two lacerations to her hand, and an ear cut in three places. The child could have died if a neighbor hadn’t choked the dog and removed it from the child’s head. The dog’s owner was convicted of a minor misdemeanor and fined $120; the dog was euthanized.

After being bitten by a dog . . .

The Ohio Department of Health has reported that between 2013 and 2017, nearly 65,000 Ohioans were
bitten by dogs. A dog can cause serious injury to an adult or child in a short time. These injuries can have
long-term consequences.
If you are bitten by a dog, seek medical treatment immediately! Some wounds may become worse over time. A seemingly minor puncture wound could transmit rabies. Notify your local animal control personnel and the police that you have been bitten, when, and where. Describe the dog, and identify the owner if you can. It’s extremely important that the dog’s rabies status be determined.

If you are bitten by someone else’s dog, trust a full-service law firm to protect your interests.

Jim Slater, the managing partner of Slater & Zurz, recently represented clients whose child was mauled and seriously injured by a good friend’s dog. The clients were reluctant to sue their friend, but Jim explained that it would be the friend’s insurance company that would ultimately have to pay—not the friend. Jim also reminded them that as parents, they had a fiduciary duty to pursue any valid claim that the child might have against someone else. Eventually, the clients agreed to go forward with a lawsuit. As a result, the child’s medical expenses were all paid, and the child has a tax-free trust fund for future needs.

As a responsible dog owner, you may hesitate to file a claim against the owner of a dog that has bitten you. Although it’s rare, even the gentlest dog can react in an unanticipated manner with tragic results. A dog that appears well-behaved may have bitten someone else in the past. A dog that got loose and bit you may have a history of breaking free from its owner’s control. If you’ve been injured by someone else’s dog, you deserve to be compensated. Especially if the dog qualifies as “dangerous,” taking legal action may prevent someone else from going through what you’ve experienced. Once your medical issues are under control, reach out to a full-service law firm with experience in dog bite cases.

Like so many others who have placed their trust in us, you can count on Slater & Zurz to thoroughly evaluate your claim, answer your questions, and recommend the best path forward for you, based on your circumstances and the expertise we’ve developed over the years handling dog-bite cases. Call our team of seasoned professionals for a free consultation at (888) 998-9101. We’re here to serve your legal needs with compassion, dedication, and the drive to win for you.