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Dog Bite Laws In Missouri and the story Old Drum

“One bite, everyone knows the rules.” This catchphrase of Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy used for pizza review videos succinctly summarizes the old laws governing dog bites. Dog bite victims used to have to show that a dog had a history of biting or displayed vicious propensities before bringing a claim. This generally meant victims had to show prior bites or severe aggressiveness. They further had to show that the dog owner knew of these tendencies before the attack. The effect of this burden of proof was that dogs generally had a free pass for their first bite, making it more difficult to bring a claim.

In 2009, Missouri loosened the requirements of the so-called “one bite” law. RSMO 273.036 was passed to allow anyone bitten by a dog to seek compensation from the dog owner for their injuries. Dog owners are now strictly liable for their injuries. Gone is the need to prove that the dog had prior vicious tendencies or that the owner knew of them.

Dog owners are now strictly liable if the victim did not provoke the attack in any way. If the victim may have contributed to the attack, the amount of compensation owed will be lessened by the percentage the victim is found to have been at fault. This percentage would ultimately be left up to a judge or jury to decide at trial based on the specific facts of the attack. Dog bite victims can seek compensation for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, psychological trauma, and the cost of any corrective surgeries.

A victim of a dog bite must be able to show that they were either on public property or lawfully on private property before they can bring a claim. This precludes unlawful trespassers from suing a dog owner. Dogs therefore have a right to attack intruders while defending their own private property. Dogs cannot, however, attack houseguests, the mailman, or anyone else who has a right to be on your property, even if that right is temporary (i.e. police or ambulance responding to emergency calls).

In addition to paying damages from the civil claim, a liable dog owner will also have to pay a fine of $1,000. Most of the time a dog owner’s homeowner’s insurance will cover the cost of the injuries. A plaintiff’s lawyer will first seek damages from the insurance company prior to trying to collect against the dog owner individually. A personal injury lawyer may be able to find additional insurance coverages from other policies during the discovery phase of litigation.

After a dog bite, an investigation should be done to uncover the facts surrounding the attack. A police report should be made as well as an animal control report. Recorded statements from the dog owner and witnesses should be done as soon as possible.

Notice that nowhere in the statute does it require that the dog owner put the dog down.

Burden vs. Hornsby

Laws exist in their current form in large part due to how conflicts were resolved in the past. I find the laws governing dogs biting other animals fascinating as they show how disputes from long ago were resolved. These laws stem from Missouri caselaw of neighboring farmer disputes from the 1800s. In a more agrarian society, such disputes presumably arose much more often than today. Burden vs. Hornsby is one of the more well-known of these cases and is worth mentioning for its outcome and the interesting characters involved.

On October 18, 1869, a hound by the name of Old Drum was shot while on the property of his owner’s neighbor. Old Drum’s owner, Charles Burden, was furious. Old Drum was his favorite prized hunting hound. He demanded that someone pay for the murder of his beloved hound, no matter the cost.

That “someone” who shot Old Drum was his neighbor and brother-in-law, Leonidas Hornsby. Frustrated at losing over 100 sheep to stray dogs and wolves, Mr. Hornsby vowed to kill the first dog found on his property. That dog happened to be Old Drum. While Mr. Hornsby did not actually pull the trigger, he was present while his young nephew shot Old Drum.

Old Drum’s body was found near a river not far from Mr. Hornsby’s property. It appeared that he had been dragged there by something or someone. Burden argued that Mr. Hornsby used his donkey to drag Old Drum off his property. Mr. Hornsby claimed that the evidence against him was circumstantial at best.

Burden vs. Hornsby was tried three times, with the final case in Warrensburg, Missouri on September 23, 1870. Burden hired one of the area’s top lawyers to handle the case, a man by the name of George Graham Vest. During closing, Mr. Vest appealed to the jury and to dog lovers all over the world. This speech swung the case for Mr. Burden, who was awarded $50.00 in damages. An appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the verdict.

Mr. Vest’s Closing Arguments: A Eulogy To Old Drum

“Gentlemen of the Jury, the best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.

Gentleman of the Jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and the sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert he remains.

When riches take wings and reputation fall to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.”

Mr. Vest’s speech is now memorialized on a plaque outside of Warrensburg, Missouri, underneath a statue of Old Drum. The characters in the story are remarkably interesting. Mr. Vest fought for the south in the civil war, eventually becoming a United States Senator for Missouri in his later years.

The cost of multiple trials and appeals set both Mr. Burden and Mr. Hornby back. It allegedly took “several years” for each man to financially recover from this. These neighbors and brother-in-laws also accepted the court’s resolution; surprisingly neither had ill will toward the other either before or after the trial. They are now buried a few yards apart from one another in Kingsville, Missouri.

Current Laws Governing Dogs Biting Other Animals

While Mr. Hornsby lost the trial, the Missouri legislature partially vindicated him after his death. RSMO 273.020 was passed in 1939. It provides that “in every case where sheep or other domestic animals are killed or maimed by dogs,” the owner of the damaged animals may recover the cost of the damage AND that “the dog owner shall forthwith kill the responsible dog.

This requirement that the dog owner kill the offending dog must have not gone far enough. The legislature further added that “for every day that the dog owner refuses or neglects to kill his dog, he shall pay or forfeit the sum of one dollar” ($1 in 1939 is the 2021 equivalent of $18.61). In addition to this fine, the statute goes on to authorize anyone to kill the offending dog.

Mr. Hornsby would have been happy to see this last part. An eye for an eye has been one of the oldest laws in human history. I would think that authorizing anyone to kill the offending dog would only invite further dispute, however the effect was likely to allow a farmer like Mr. Hornsby to shoot a dog if it trespassed on the property again without recourse. A victim would likely be guilty of the criminal act of trespass if they were to unlawfully go on to the offending dog owner’s property and kill the dog, even if the killing were lawful.

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