Tennessee Court of Appeals Upholds Finding That Dog Owner is Not Liable for Bite

Dogs are a man’s best friends, and they typically bring great joy and laughter to a household. With training, patience, and love, pets can be a wonderful addition to any family. Occasionally, however, certain pets may exhibit aggression, fear, or a propensity for unpredictable behavior. In these circumstances, an owner has an obligation to protect other individuals from the possibility of violent behavior by the pet. If the owner fails to do so, he or she may be held liable for an injury that results. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals evaluates these obligations and how much knowledge an owner must have before an injury occurs.In this Tennessee dog bite case, D.S. took her son with her to visit the home of her close friend W.A. D.S. and W.A. had known each other a long time, and their children were friends. When they arrived at the home, W.A.’s Australian shepherd, Ruby, was lying on the front porch. D.S.’s son approached and began to pet Ruby on the head and back. Ruby did not appear bothered by this. Later, D.S. and her son went into W.A.’s house and began to relax on a chair in the living room. Ruby came up to them, jumped up, and put her paws in D.S.’s lap, while D.S.’s son began to pet Ruby again. D.S. found Ruby’s actions amusing but not uncomfortable. Eventually, W.A. began to urge Ruby to get down. After several requests, W.A. swatted Ruby on the back, and she jumped down. Ruby ran off into another room for a few minutes and then returned. She again jumped up and placed her paws on D.S.’s lap. This time, however, Ruby bit D.S.’s son on the face, causing severe injuries.

Shortly thereafter, D.S. filed a lawsuit against W.A. for the injuries her son experienced. She argued that under Tennessee common law and Tennessee statutory law, W.A. was negligent in allowing her dog to attack D.S.’s son. In response, W.A. moved for summary judgment, arguing that she had no knowledge of any prior violence or propensity for violence by Ruby and, accordingly, could not be held responsible for Ruby’s actions. Reviewing the record and the lack of any prior history by Ruby, the lower court agreed and granted summary judgment to W.A.

On appeal, D.S. argued that W.A. should be held responsible for Ruby’s actions even if she didn’t know that Ruby was likely to hurt someone. Under Tennessee common law, a dog owner may only be held liable for a dog bite if the dog had a history of injuring people, and the owner was aware of this history. In 2007, Tennessee codified this common law claim and added an element of strict liability. Under the statute, dog owners may be held liable for the violent actions of their dogs, even if they are not aware of a propensity toward violence, if they were not reasonably able to control the dog at the time of the injury or the dog was running at large. However, under the statute, when individuals are in a dog owner’s home when they are injured, they may only bring a claim against the dog owner if the owner had reason to know that the dog was violent.

Here, D.S.’s son was injured while visiting W.A. in her home. Since they were in the residence at the time of the injury, the Court of Appeals held that the strict liability requirements of the Tennessee statute did not apply. Instead, D.S. was required to show that W.A. knew or had reason to know that Ruby could be violent. Before the lower court, W.A. had presented evidence that she had never seen Ruby act aggressively toward another individual and was unaware of any tendency by Ruby to act violently. D.S. was unable to refute these assertions and herself acknowledged that Ruby had not acted aggressively toward her son prior to biting him. Based on this information, the Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that D.S. could not show that W.A. knew Ruby was violent and that summary judgment for W.A. was appropriate.

When pets act unexpectedly and without warning, their owners typically will not be held liable for any injury or damage that might result. However, if you have a pet that has a tendency to act aggressively, or that has bitten other individuals in the past, you should know that you may be held liable if your pet injures someone else. Tennessee personal injury attorney Eric Beasley understands how the law works with regard to dog bites. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Denies Claim When Medical Records Suggest No Injury, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 6, 2017.

Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.

Do Curbs For Wheelchair Ramps Constitute Dangerous Conditions In Tennessee?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 27, 2016.