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.