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HELENA - Dog owners who live outside the city limits would be liable for damages when their dogs bite people under a bill that received preliminary House approval Monday.

The House voted 75-24 to approve House Bill 431, by Rep. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls. It faces a final House vote before moving to the Senate.

For 60 years under Montana law, dog owners within city limits have been liable for the damages caused when their dogs bite people, Blewett said. His bill would extend this same liability to dog owners who live outside the city limits.

"Outside incorporated towns and cities, dog owners do not get one free bite (as they have for 60 years)," Blewett said. "The practical effect (now) is you get a lot of free bites."

The bill would not only apply to owners of dogs but also to others who have a financial or proprietary interest in the dog, he said.

Blewett said it's mostly small children who suffer from these dog bites, and they often require plastic surgery.

Rep. Krayton Kerns, a veterinarian, said the bill isn't necessary. The Republican from Laurel said he didn't regard dog bites as a major problem.

"I think the attorneys can find other ways to pay their bills," he said, referring to Ble-wett's profession.

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But Rep. Don Roberts, R-Billings, said as an oral surgeon, he treats people, mostly children, who have been bitten by dogs. Adults are usually bitten on the arms and legs, he said, but it can be "pretty devastating" when children are bitten on their faces by dogs.

"They rip, they crush, they move a lot of features," he said of the dogs that bite youths. "Life can be altered for them. A lot of tissue is removed, and it's hard to get cosmetic re-sults."

Another attorney, Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, said he had represented both dog owners and victims in dog-bite cases. All the bill does is establish what the legal standard is outside the city limits, he said.

"Now, if a bite occurs inside an incorporated city, there's absolute liability, no question about it," he said.

Blewett said the bill will presume that a child 8 years old or younger didn't provoke the dog attacks.

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