Animal shelters might get sued if a dog housed at their shelter bites a person. Given that employees, volunteers and visitors have frequent interaction dogs in the setting of an animal shelter, it becomes foreseeable that a dog might viciously attack and bite a person during the course of interaction with people.
Below, I summarize the fact pattern from a lawsuit filed against a large animal shelter in Las Vegas. ((Dr. Polsky was retained as a dog bite expert for the defense in this matter.)) What happened in this incident might be instructive to attorneys handling similar cases. This post shares my opinions from my perspective in animal behavior about the liability of the shelter. ((Dog attacks on people at Los Angeles City animal shelters have increased in the last several years. According to the website CitywatchLA.com dog attacks and dog bites on people may be the new normal. For example in 2018, 31 employees, 16 volunteers and 12 members of the public were bitten, and six of these injuries were categorized as severe. In 2019, 39 employees, 32 volunteers and 23 members of the public were victims of dog bites at Los Angeles City animal shelters, and 8 of these were classified as severe.))
Fact pattern of this animal shelter dog bite incident
The case involves a pit bull mix dog, named Stanley, who viciously bit the foot of an experienced volunteer as she was placing Stanley back into his kennel.
Stanley was a healthy 4.y.o., 84 lb. neutered pit bull type dog. He was taken as a stray to the shelter at about two months of age, and subsequently was adopted to different families and then returned to the shelter on several occasions. Stanley had been living at the shelter for about a month before the incident. While at the shelter, Stanley was walked on numerous occasions by staff members and volunteers, without incident. Stanley never had bitten or acted aggressively to any human while being cared for at the shelter.
The plaintiff had been serving as a volunteer dog walker for about a year before the incident. She knew of Stanley’s presence, and it is likely that she had walked Stanley and interacted with him before the incident. She was assigned the duties of a “runner”. A runner’s responsibility consisted of removing and placing dogs back in their kennels before and after being walked.
The incident happened when plaintiff opened the kennel door. She had the expectation that Stanley would enter on his own accord. However he was acting stubbornly and he refused to enter.. The plaintiff testified that Stanley was not displaying any signs of aggression, however. The plaintiff testified that she then nodded to Stanley. According to the plaintiff, just as she nodded, Stanley, without warning, latched onto her left ankle and lower left leg, and he started to bite and shake her repeatedly. He would not let go of her leg. She shouted for help and a kennel attendant arrived shortly thereafter. He removed Stanley from the plaintiff. Stanley was later euthanized.
Legal arguments from an animal behavior perspective
The plaintiff argued that Stanley had an inherently aggressive temperament but this was not disclose to her. Specifically, she claims that she was not told about the previous instances in which Stanley bit people. The defense argued that the plaintiff signed a waiver saying that she understood the risks involved in handling dogs, hence she assume the risk. Moreover defense argued that given that Stanley had never acted aggressively before in the the kennel or to adults. Hence, the defense argued in light of the numerous peaceful interactions Stanley had with with animal shelter personnel, the plaintiff must have provoked Stanley to bite.
Do animal shelter volunteers face the risk of being severely bitten by a dog?
Yes, for the following reasons:
The experience of being housed in a shelter is stressful for any dog. Professionals in the industry refer to this as “kennel stress.” Kennel stress can manifest itself in several ways, including prompting a typically non-aggressive dog to become aggressive and bite a human. Stress may be a catalyst for aggression in dogs. Hence, the risk existed that the plaintiff might be attacked and severely bitten by a dog she was handling. And the risk of severe injury was more significant if the dog was large and muscular, as was the case for Stanley.
Should the plaintiff known about the risk of being severely bitten by a dog?
Yes, for the following reasons:
The plaintiff was an experienced volunteer, having worked at the shelter for about a year before the incident. She volunteered her services three days a week for about four hours per day. Hence, arguably, the plaintiff was sufficiently experienced to know about the possibility that some of the dogs she handled could become aggressive. It would be naïve to believe otherwise. Phillips knew that Stanley was a large, muscular dog. Hence, it would be naïve to believe that Phillips was unaware that she could be severely injured if Stanley attacked her.
Did the animal shelter have reason to believe that Stanley was dangerous or was at heightened risk to bite a volunteer?
No, for the following reasons:
Stanley was housed at the shelter for about 30 days before the incident. Hence, there was ample time for shelter personnel to form anecdotal impressions about temperament. During this time, Stanley had the opportunity to interact with different volunteers and staff members on numerous occasions, always without incident. There were no reported instances or concerns raised about Stanley. Hence, based on his behavior and his lack of aggressive responsiveness towards those who handle Stanley, there are no animal behavior bases to warrant the belief that he presented a heightened risk for biting a person.
However, records indicated that Stanley bit a several children before his arrival at the shelter. However, the careful analysis of the totality of circumstances in both instances clearly showed that Stanley was provoked to bite.
Third, animal behavior analysis human directed aggression usually happens in specific contexts. Human-directed aggression by dogs in one setting may not happen in a different setting. The bites Stanley inflicted to happened in the setting of a home environment. Given this, Stanley’s aggression in a home setting does not mean he would have similar aggressive tendencies towards humans in a shelter environment.
Next, in these previous instances children were bitten and not adults. And the records show that Stanley had gotten on well with adults in the home environment with the children were living. In short, Stanley only had issues with children. This is significant because the volunteers and staff members at the NSPCA were adults. Hence, it was not foreseeable that Stanley would bite an adult while being house at the shelter.
Finally, Stanley was a friendly, at times standoffish, but a consistently non-aggressive dog to people and other dogs during his stay at the shelter there was no evidence indicating any incidences of Stanley biting a person or acting aggressively towards a person during his stay. The anecdotal impressions that staff members and volunteers formed of Stanley’s temperament were positive and suggestive of an adoptable dog. During his month-long stay, Stanley was removed from his kennel, walked, and returned to his kennel by the volunteers on numerous occasions, without incident.
Did the shelter take sufficient measures to lessen the risk that volunteers would be bitten by a dog?
Yes, for the following reasons:
All dogs were evaluated for their temperament, and there were multiple evaluations, albeit anecdotal, over time. A checklist was used to document a dog’s behavior. Moreover when the plaintiff started volunteering at the NSPCA, she was mentored by an experienced dog walker. Through this mentoring, she “learn the ropes” of walking dogs. Moreover, a color-coded rating system was used for both the dogs and dog walkers. Hence, a procedure was in place to ensure that the walkers were adequately “matched” with a dog.
Did the plaintiff provoke the incident?
Yes, for the following reasons:
The plaintiff testified she nodded to Stanley, and immediately after that he attacked. Nonetheless, the plaintiff must have directed some action to Stanley, other than an innocuous action like nodding, and this was the action that caused Stanley to attack. There are no other plausible explanations. It’s important to note that before the attack started, Phillips observed Stanley acting stubbornly. He was not showing signs of aggressive intent, however. Phillips had the expectation that Stanley would enter the kennel on his own. Phillips did not feel threatened. Therefore, more likely been not the plaintiff directed an action to Stanley to get him into his kennel. More likely than not the plaintiff either kicked Stanley or she tried to nudge him into his kennel with her foot. The fact that he bit her foot is consistent with this analysis.
Three animal behavior criteria are needed to conclude that a person’s actions towards a dog are provocative. Namely, (a) Did the person direct action to the dog? (b) Did this action cause the dog to react immediately? (c) Did the action result in a motivational change in the dog? All three criteria were satisfied in the current instance. Read more about provocation elsewhere on this website or on the website of Michigan State University College of Law.
The shelter did not have reason to believe that Stanley was a hazardous dog, or he was at heightened risk to bite a person or bite a person severely. Reconstruction of this animal shelter dog bite incident indicates the plaintiff must have provoked Stanley to attack. It’s likely that she tried using her foot to get Stanley into his kennel and that nodding was not the impetus that caused him to attack. This conclusion considers to totality of all the evidence in this case including Stanley’s non-aggressive behavioral history at the shelter, and his stubbornness and non-aggressive demeanor immediately before the start of the attack.
The case settled prior to trial. The details of the settlement were not disclosed to Dr. Polsky.
Dr. Polsky is in animal behavior expert specializing in dog bites. He has successfully served both defense and plaintiff attorneys in Nevada. He welcomes inquiries from attorneys seeking an expert in animal behavior as a relates to dog behavior.