The state Supreme Court has granted allocatur in a case over whether Pennsylvania's Dog Law, a criminal statute, creates a strict liability offense.
In an allocatur grant earlier this month, the justices asked the parties in Commonwealth v. Raban to present statutory construction to determine whether the Pennsylvania General Assembly intended a section of the Dog Law be viewed as creating a strict liability offense.
In other words, does the owner of an errant dog have to fail to exercise reasonable efforts to confine the dog, and does he have to possess a "mens rea" -- Latin for "a guilty mind" -- to be found liable?
Two courts have already said no, with a unanimous state Superior Court panel deciding it would "frustrate the legislative intent" behind the law if a "reasonable care" standard were to be utilized. A standard of reasonable care is the standard a person must meet when performing acts -- such as owning or walking a dog -- that could foreseeably harm others.
Establishing a failure to take reasonable care is, in some cases, the first step in determining negligence.
But the attorney representing Simon Raban, the man whose Giant Schnauzer allegedly ran from his home and attacked a Bernese Mountain dog across the street, said the Dog Law appeared to point toward a "reasonable care" reading in some areas, and toward a "strict liability" in others. A strict liability is a standard of liability that suggests a person is legally responsible for damages caused by his or her actions, or inactions, regardless of whether he took reasonable care to avoid a damaging outcome.
In other words, it doesn't matter if he has a guilty mind, or if he took reasonable care to avoid a dog attack -- if the dog attacked, the owner is responsible for damages.
"There's a part to it for harboring dangerous dogs. That clearly is a strict liability provision," said Bryn Mawr, Pa., attorney James Cunilio.
But at other points in the law, Mr. Cunilio said in an interview, the law seems to invoke a reasonable control standard.
Mr. Cunilio added the witness from which the trial court based its factual record had an "ax to grind" with Mr. Raban. The witness was Mr. Raban's neighbor, but not the owner of the dog Mr. Raban's Schnauzer allegedly attacked.