Virginia Considers Tougher Dog Owner Liability Law After Widow’s Mauling

December 21, 2005

Lawmakers in Richmond are proposing tough legislation to punish Virginia dog owners whose pets injure or kill following the attack of an 82-year-old widow who was fatally mauled by three roaming pit bulls.

Dorothy Sullivan’s family and some legislators contend Virginia law doesn’t give prosecutors much recourse in cases where dogs kill or maim.

“The horrific nature of Mrs. Sullivan’s death, coupled with the prosecutor telling me he really didn’t have a whole lot legally as means to pursue the case, told me that Virginia law really seemed to be lacking,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania County. He plans to present the Dorothy Sullivan Memorial Bill to the General Assembly when it convenes next month.

Sullivan was attacked while walking her small dog Buttons in her front yard in Partlow on March 8. Buttons was also killed.

Deanna Large, who prosecutors say owned the pit bulls, is being tried on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, marking the first time in Virginia a dog owner will be prosecuted on such a charge in a fatal mauling.

Large, who lives down the road from Sullivan’s house, could be sentenced to up to 13 years in prison if convicted of the felony and three misdemeanor counts of allowing a dangerous dog to run at large.

Fatal dog attacks are not specified under the state’s involuntary manslaughter statute. Houck’s bill would add a provision to state law that makes fatal attacks a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

If a dog seriously injures a person but does not kill them, such a crime in Virginia is only punishable as a misdemeanor.

The Virginia State Crime Commission has proposed specifying negligent behavior by an animal owner that results in serious harm under the unlawful bodily injury statute, making it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.

“There should be an option for the commonwealth to seek a stiffer penalty,” Executive Director Kim Hamilton said.

Houck’s bill would also make certain dog attacks that result in serious injury a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $2,500 fine. Under the proposed legislation, the penalties would be harsher for dog owners whose pets have previously been declared dangerous.

The legislation would also allow law enforcement officials to petition a court to declare a dog dangerous. Currently, only animal control officers have such authority. Owners of dogs declared dangerous would be required to maintain a $300,000 insurance policy, up from the $100,000 required now.

Despite the intense publicity and public outcry following Sullivan’s death, Houck admits getting the legislation to pass the General Assembly could be tricky.

“There’s an old saying at the General Assembly: ‘You do not introduce a dog bill,”‘ he said. “There’s such a wide assortment and differing opinions about dogs that it’s very difficult to develop a consensus.”

Dog laws often incite passionate debate from dog owners and attack victims, making it a tough issue for lawmakers to tackle, said Los Angeles attorney Kenneth Phillips, who has represented victims in more than 1,000 dog bite cases and is the author of
“It’s tricky politically,” Phillips said.

The wide variation in dog laws nationwide can also make drafting such legislation complicated. Specific dog breeds are rarely declared dangerous by states and 12 states ban breed-specific legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Exceptions include Ohio, which singles out pit bulls as “vicious,” and Pennsylvania, where pit bulls and Rottweilers are “generally considered dangerous” under state law.

Most regulation of dog laws is done at the local level. Some cities, including Denver and Miami, ban the ownership of pit bulls. Last month in San Francisco, city supervisors passed a law requiring spaying and neutering of pit bulls following the fatal mauling of a 12-year-old boy.

In August, Ontario became the first province in Canada to ban pit bulls following a string of attacks by the dogs.

Banning certain breeds simply doesn’t work, said Ledy VanKavage, an attorney with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction,” she said. “If we want to be proactive, not reactive, we will try to find ways to increase the number of spayed or neutered dogs out there.”

Sullivan’s daughter, Betty Greene, said her family has collected more than 3,500 signatures on a petition to lawmakers, calling for stricter dog laws. She hopes the General Assembly will take her mother’s death to heart when considering the legislation next month.

A lot of people agree with our petition and they want something done,” said Greene, 57, of Partlow. “If they do pass the law and it does some good, at least she wouldn’t have died for nothing.”

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