You heard about the Southwest Airlines flight where the little girl was injured by a support dog, right? 

The story went viral. Questions were asked. Was she bitten? Was she merely "scraped?" Was it all her fault to begin with?

In all the noise, however, something was glossed over: an entire legal specialty with an admittedly silly name: "dog bite law." Because it turns out "dog bite law" provides a lot of the answers that people are searching for.

Let's go through what happened, what people are talking about--and why a lot of this might already be settled without people even realizing it.

Dogs on a plane

First, the reported facts. The 6-year-old girl was with her parent, boarding a Southwest flight in Phoenix en route to Portland, Oregon. (See the video embedded at the end of this article for more context.)

She passed by a customer with a dog--and as six-year-olds might be expected to do, she tried to pet it. Another passenger posted what he saw on Twitter: 

Southwest ... "allows a support dog on the plane, bites kid, paramedics now on plane."

(The tweet was later deleted.)

Southwest Airlines had a slightly different take, saying in a statement afterward, "a support dog's teeth scraped a child's forehead as the young passenger approached the animal, causing a minor injury." 

A bite? A scrape? Who knows. Cops were called, EMTs checked the girl out.

Ultimately, the passenger with the support dog was asked to leave the plane; the little girl and her family stayed aboard--with the little girl sporting a bandage.

(As the father of a little girl myself, I'm going to go out on a limb and say she probably liked having the bandage.)

The backlash and the bite

On the Internet, because we can't have nice things, a lot of people seemed to side quickly with the dog owner, who reportedly told police that the girl had been warned to stay away.

As one person tweeted, according to Business Insider, after apparently taking the dog owner's version as Gospel truth:

"She was specifically told to stay away, clearly she nor her parents listened. She's already six, teach her personal responsibility. The pet owner has every right to be angry, it's not the dog's fault the kid wasn't supervised."

Only, as it turns out, in Arizona, it literally wouldn't matter. There is no question under the law: the owner is 100 percent at fault, legally speaking.

This is because Arizona has a very tough dog bite law, which imposes "strict liability" on an owner whose dog bites someone, explained Sean Phelan, a partner at Jensen Phelan Law Firm in Prescott, Ariz.

You might not agree with it, you might not like it. But the law is pretty close to ironclad.

"Simply, the dog owner is liable even if he/she exercised the utmost care to prevent any harm," Phelan said. "Arizona strict liability dog bite law make no exceptions for service or assistance animals."

"Man bites dog"

Kids get bit by dogs all the time in this world, of course. What makes this newsworthy is that it happened on an airplane.

And it comes in the midst of a vehement debate over whether airlines should really have to let people bring support animals aboard in the first place.

People have been seriously hurt--like the man who was reportedly viciously attacked by a dog on a Delta flight last year. In the wake of these kinds of incidents, United Airlines and Delta Airlines both announced more stringent restrictions on people bringing animals aboard.

However, Southwest's policy seems a little less restrictive. (It's posted on their website.) Anyone who wants to bring an animal aboard for emotional support has to bring a letter from a medical health professional.

All of which leads to something I think they taught us on the first day of law school: the Deep Pockets Rule.

"The actual issue is whether there is insurance," explained Michael P. McCready, a Chicago lawyer with McCready, Garcia and Leet, P.C., and a lot of times, individual dog owners don't have enough insurance or deep enough pockets to make them worth suing.

The Deep Pockets Rule

You know who does have deep pockets, though? The airlines themselves. And if I were running an airline, I'd be a little concerned.

Granted, the airlines really are in a bind. Federal disability law requires them to let people bring support animals aboard, but other passengers often aren't thrilled about the idea of sharing a pressurized metal tube at 30,000 feet with a strange and unpredictable dog. (Or peacock.)

It's not until people get hurt, however--and lawyers get involved--that we start thinking about the real risk to an airline that doesn't think this all through. An airline wouldn't face the same strict liability standard, but if a creative lawyer could come up with a good negligence argument, it could be really costly.

Fortunately, this little girl wasn't seriously injured. Fortunately, the whole thing happened on the ground.

What would happen sometime when a dog becomes scared and protective at altitude, trying to defend its owners against perceived threats? What would happen if other passengers or crew members were seriously injured--or worse?

Besides the obvious physical danger, the financial danger is perhaps much greater than many people appreciate.

"Animals in cabins can be potentially very dangerous," said Alexis Breyer, a personal injury and wrongful death lawyer with Breyer Law Offices, P.C., in Arizona. "There should be procedures that dog owners have to follow so that the animals cannot come out near other passengers. This is especially so for dogs near minors."

What do you think? Does strict liability make sense, or is there another answer? Let us know in the comments. 

Published on: Feb 23, 2018
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