June 16, 2019

Panel rejects dog law change Pet misbehavior owners’ problem

AUGUSTA – Members of the Legislature’s Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation killed a proposed bill Thursday afternoon that would have expanded the state’s dangerous-dog law. Rather than create and install complicated legislation, the committee opted to send a message that dog owners must accept responsibility for their pets’ misbehavior.

The dangerous-dog proposal would have authorized municipalities to write their own dangerous-dog regulations, which could be stricter than state law. For example, a town could name specific breeds of dog that would be considered dangerous.

The bill was discussed last month by the legislative panel, but was sent to the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee for review.

Committee member and lawyer Anne Jordan told legislators Thursday that it was the unanimous consensus of the animal welfare panel that the bill ought not to pass. “It creates too many problems,” she said. “This could result in hundreds of different definitions of dangerous dogs statewide.”

The bill was prompted by an attack on a Berwick woman who spotted puppies in the road and went to a nearby home to notify the dogs’ owners. The puppies’ mother attacked the woman, injuring her seriously.

Jordan said that the current state law already allows towns “the authority to exercise control over animals that pose a threat to public safety” and that victims can sue dog owners in civil court if bitten.

Kirsten Hebert, an attorney for the Maine Municipal Association, said that municipalities can enact their own dog ordinances but MMA has no model ordinances on file nor has the organization ever been asked for one by a Maine town.

Sen. John Nutting, D-Androscoggin, used the proposed bill as a vehicle to try to deal with a home insurance issue. Nutting said that 70 percent of all dog bites are caused by seven breeds of dogs and that many insurance companies are not renewing or offering home insurance to homeowners with those breeds of dog in the home.

Pit bulls, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers and Rottweilers are included in that list.

Nutting said that, until an incident occurs, many homeowners are not aware they have no coverage for suits involving their dogs. “The average dog bite claim is $75,000,” he said.

He attempted Thursday to amend the dangerous-dog law to require that any insurance company in Maine notify the homeowner if coverage is not going to be offered or extended.

Everard Stevens of OneBeacon Insurance Co., however, said that most companies are already presenting forms to their customers notifying them that they have the option to continue coverage that excludes the dog or to decline coverage. OneBeacon insures more than 25 percent of Maine homes, said Stevens, who placed the responsibility for such issues with the dog owners.

“There is no free lunch,” said Stevens. “This is an issue of responsibility. A mandate would not change the pattern of irresponsible people.”

Jordan told the committee that insurance is a contract that balances fees with risk. She said standard renewal or initial insurance forms ask questions such as “Do you have a pool or a Jet Ski? Do you have a dog and what breed is it?” and that information is used as part of the contract.

Despite Nutting’s attempt, the committee voted that the bill ought not to pass.

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