ANIMAL WATCH - On May 17, 2023, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that the City of Los Angeles may be sued for violating what Dog-Bite Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips calls the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” by not fully disclosing the bite history of O’Gee, a Pit Bull that later chewed through the arm of the mother of the adopter.
The above photo taken of Angelia Alvarado in June 2021 shows her holding a prosthetic arm she is now learning how to use. Her left hand and arm also sustained serious permanent damage as she tried to defend herself from the dog adopted from an L.A. Animal Services shelter.
HISTORY – LAAS SHELTER KNEW O’GEE WAS A DANGEROUS DOG
On August 5, 2021, Attorney Phillips filed a Complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Angelia Alvarado and her husband, Jose, after she was viciously attacked by the known-dangerous Pit Bull, named O'Gee, which had been released for adoption to her son by Los Angeles Animal Services in accordance with a policy in effect under then-General Manager Brenda Barnette.
The injuries to the victim’s right forearm were reportedly described by a Los Angeles Police officer who was a first responder, as “looking like it went through a meat grinder and the bones were broken.”
According to the shelter’s own report, O'Gee had been first captured on May 25, 2020, by LA Animal Services officers after he viciously chased and attacked a jogger running on a public street.
2019 LAW (A.B. 588) REQUIRES BITE DISCLOSURE
CA law (A.B. 588), effective January 1, 2020, requires public shelters and non-profit/ private rescue groups to give the potential adopter of a dog its bite history in writing. The disclosure has to include each bite and the circumstances of the bite. The adopter has to sign the disclosure and the shelter or rescue must retain the original.
The City of Los Angeles is accused of violating this “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” in Alvarado v. City of Los Angeles, known as the “Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case,” which contends the City adopted a Pit Bull to the Alvarado’s adult son, Brent, without warning him it had savagely attacked a jogger just weeks before, was considered to be vicious, and had been recommended for a formal hearing to possibly euthanize it.
Despite knowing these facts about the dog, O’Gee, the shelter workers failed to give Brent either a warning or the required written disclosure.
ATTACK ON ELDERLY VICTIM
Several months later, on September 26, 2020, O’Gee brutally mauled his mother, Argelia Alvarado, shredding both of her arms and almost entirely chewing off her right one. Doctors had to amputate it almost to her shoulder. Additionally, her left arm was permanently disabled in the attack.
In the lawsuit that followed, Ken Phillips, the Alvarados’ attorney, made the State’s 2020 dog-bite disclosure mandate, which he called the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law,” one of the grounds for holding the City liable.
CITY REQUESTS THE DISMISSAL OF THE CASE
The City’s response was to ask the court to dismiss the case. According to the City, the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” merely gave it the option to disclose the dog’s biting history when it was adopted out.
“The City made every argument against the ‘Truth in Pet Adoption Law’ that could have been made,” Phillips explained. “They said, ‘We didn’t own the dog, we gave it to the son so he should be the only one who can sue us, we have immunity, the statute doesn’t give the Alvarado’s the right to sue, and the statute wasn’t intended to protect people from dog bites.”
“It was like a compendium of every excuse imaginable to get out of having to compensate Mr. and Mrs. Alvarado. But it didn’t work.”
Attorney Phillips contended:
“Good-hearted people who come to a shelter with the intention of giving a dog a loving, forever home must be treated with honesty,” he told the court. “It’s not optional for our government to tell us the truth. We have a right to the full truth about something we are taking into our homes to share with our children, spouses, and parents. This case is based on that right.”
The Shelter Dog Dilemma for Adopters
“There are two ways of looking at adopting a dog,” Phillips states:
“One might say it is a truly delightful and heartwarming adventure. Rescue dogs are especially joyful in a new home with loving and compassionate owners.
“But another might say adopting a dog can be one of the most dangerous, foolish things you’ll ever do. Not so much because rescue dogs are a bad bet, which they might be, but because the system is rigged to put known vicious dogs into the homes of unsuspecting adopters and then, if something goes wrong, treat the victims like fools by blaming them and making them shoulder all the costs, medical bills, and suffering without recourse.”
Consider these facts, he says:
- In a recent year, shelter dogs killed 7 of the 36 Americans killed by dogs.
- At least one shelter manager has been criminally prosecuted for rehoming vicious dogs.
- A shelter manager gave two vicious Pit Bulls back to their owner after learning that the court ordered the dogs euthanized.
- Shelters have allegedly been known to erase a dog's history of biting, change its name, and misidentify its breed in order to trick unsuspecting families into adopting vicious dogs.
THE JUDGE RULED IN FAVOR OF THE TRUTH
On May 17, 2023, the court sided with the Alvarado family and rejected the City's arguments, writing this: “The language in [Section 30503.5] is mandatory as exemplified by the repeated use of the word ‘shall.’ If the animal shelter knows of a bite by a dog four months or older, it is required to disclose that information and obtain a signed acknowledgment. There is no discretion contemplated by the statute.”
“The Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings OF DEFENDANT CITY OF LOS ANGELES filed by City of Los Angeles on 11/29/2022 is Denied.”
COURT’S RULING HAS NATIONAL IMPORTANCE
The ruling means that someone who gets bitten by a rescue dog can be compensated if it turns out that the shelter or rescue that gave away the dog knew about a prior bite but failed to disclose it in writing. It also benefits public safety and the welfare of shelter dogs by making it more likely that an adopter will select a dog whose temperament is best for the adopter’s circumstances. Some families want a gentle dog while others need a protective one that could bite if necessary.
According to Attorney Ken Phillips, the court’s ruling has national importance. “There are only two states that have a ‘Truth in Pet Adoption Law’ for dog adoptions, namely California and Virginia,” he said. “The Alvarado case is the first to establish that these laws can be enforced by the bite victims.”
“Now that we have accomplished this in California, every state should enact a ‘similar law,” he says.
The most promising solution for the shelter dog problem is to enact laws requiring shelters and rescues to tell the truth to potential adopters. Two states have already done so.
The first was Virginia in 2018. Section 3.2-6509.1 (Disclosure of Animal Bite History) of the Code of Virginia requires public shelters, law enforcement officers, and animal control personnel to find out a dog’s bite history and circumstances of each bite, and disclose that information to its old or new owners “upon release” of a dog. Any violation is a class 3 misdemeanor. (See Code of Virginia, Sec 3.2-6509.1.)
Like the Virginia statute, California Food & Agricultural Section 30503.5 (for counties of 100,000 people or more) and Section 30526 (for counties with fewer than 100,000 people) require disclosing each bite and the circumstances of the bite.
The California law goes further than the Virginia statute:
- The bite history and circumstances of each bite must be disclosed before selling, giving away, or otherwise releasing the dog, as opposed to “upon release.”
- The information must be given in writing, signed by whoever intends to take the dog.
- The original, signed disclosure document must be retained by the transferor.
- The law applies to every public shelter, animal control agency, society for the prevention of cruelty to animals shelter, humane society shelter, and rescue group.
- A violation triggers a $500 civil fine.
CA “Truth in Pet Adoption” – Plugs Loopholes in “Rescue” Adoptions
In 2019, the California Animal Welfare Association told the State Legislature that there were thousands more emergency room visits for dog bites than before. And they said, “[m]any of these instances could have been prevented if owners were given the proper information regarding a dog's bite history and the circumstances surrounding particular incidents.”
A State Senate Committee noted there was a loophole in the law of adoption, stating, “current law does not require a shelter or rescue group to disclose information to individuals regarding the animal’s dog bite history.” The Legislature found that some shelters were disclosing the bite history, but other shelters were not.
According to the Senate Committee report, “(t)he solution to this is to require that any shelter or rescue that adopts out or transfers an animal disclose to the adopter or rescue that the dog has a known bite history and circumstances of the bite.”
The California Animal Welfare Association added, “by ensuring shelters and rescues disclose this information to potential adopters, AB 588 [the bill that resulted in sections 30503.5 and 30526] will make sure that this best practice already used in many shelters is more consistently and broadly practiced in shelters and with rescues across the state.”
In other words, the purpose of the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” is to make the duty of disclosure mandatory.
CITY OF L.A. BROKE ITS OWN LAW ON DISCLOSURE
The City of Los Angeles, at the urging of its Department of Animal Services, endorsed AB 588, adding to the widespread support of the law.
But unfortunately, just 6 months after the law went into effect, the City broke it when its employees failed to make the required disclosure about the Pit Bull that chewed through Mrs. Alvarado’s right arm, and made her left arm permanently disabled.
“The City’s response to the ‘Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case’ was to try to gut the ‘Truth in Pet Adoption Law,’” Phillips said.
THE “TRUTH IN PET ADOPTION LAW” IS A MODEL FOR THE NATION
The court’s ruling in the “Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case” confirmed that California Food & Agricultural Code sections 30503.5 and 30526 establish an enforceable, mandatory duty for public shelters and non-profit/private rescues to disclose in writing the bite history of a dog and the circumstances of the bite(s). The court’s ruling means that the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” can be the model for similar laws throughout the USA.
In the past, animal control departments and public shelters avoided liability by claiming that various laws gave them the option of doing their duty or not. The legal term for this is “discretionary immunity.” It refers to situations where government employees have to balance competing factors and make the best decision they can. (If carrying out a statutory duty requires subjective decisions, the duty is not considered to be mandatory.)
The “Truth in Pet Adoption Law” does not call for anyone to make a subjective evaluation. Sections 30503.5 and 30526 were drafted to eliminate any judgment calls by shelters or rescues. The duty of disclosure is triggered by two objective criteria:
- The dog previously bit someone and the bite broke their skin.
- The bite happened when the dog was 4 months of age or older.
In the “Pit Bull Meat Grinder Case,” the City of Los Angeles tried to convince the court that sections 30503.5 and 30526 required a balancing of factors, thereby entitling the City to discretionary immunity. The court was unpersuaded, stating, “There is no discretion contemplated by the statute.” Indeed, a dog is either 4 months old or isn't. A bite either broke a person's skin or didn't.
Phillips says his goal is “to show lawmakers how to enact similar laws in the 48 states that do not have such a law.”
“Telling the truth to adopters is not only good for people but also good for the dogs,” he said. “Disclosing the truth about a dog helps people pick the one that’s just right for their family and situation.”
Phillips has devoted a section of his website, Dog Bite Law (dogbitelaw.com), to publicize the “Truth in Pet Adoption Law.” The direct link is on the home page of his website. His article goes into greater detail about the court’s decision.
(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a former Los Angeles City employee, an animal activist and a contributor to CityWatch)