Win for Dog Bite Victims in Minnesota (Sort of.)

New Dog Bite Opinion in Minnesota

We have our own issues here in Maryland with dog attacks and dog bites, particularly now that no one really knows what the law is and whether it will change regarding pit bulls (see our post on Tracey v. Solesky). Right now, the legislature seems poised to come up with some solution to the high court’s problematic ruling that pit bulls are inherently dangerous.

The question is one of what the solution will be—a return to the status quo and the “one free bite” rule; or a rule that all dog owners are responsible for any injuries caused by their dogs. One thing is for sure—the legislators should read up on Minnesota’s rule for guidance on how to best craft their rule.

Minnesota’s rule is problematic, as shown by this month’s Minnesota Supreme Court ruling, Anderson v. Christopherson. Minnesota’s rule (Minnesota Statutes § 347.22) is deceptively simple:

If a dog, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is acting peaceably in any place where the person may lawfully be, the owner of the dog is liable in damages to the person so attacked or injured to the full amount of the injury sustained. The term “owner” includes any person harboring or keeping a dog but the owner shall be primarily liable. The term “dog” includes both male and female of the canine bite opinion

Reading just the rule, it appears to make sense. To me, it sounds like “the owner of any unprovoked dog who attacks or injures a person is responsible for those injuries.” That is a good, common-sense rule. If you own a dog, and that dog causes harm, you are responsible. It doesn’t matter if the dog is a pit bull or a poodle. It doesn’t matter if the dog never harmed a fly, or has bitten ten people. That rule seems to place responsibility squarely on the shoulders of people who should accept that responsibility—the dog owners.

Let’s be clear: this would not be an anti-dog rule. No one Reasonable people do not blame the dog when they bite. It does not mean that the dog should be put down. It means the dog’s owner must take responsibility because the owner should bear the loss instead of the person who got bit. Many of the comments to my prior posts on Maryland’s new dog bite law for pit bulls (here and here) were from dog rights activists who also believe this should be the law.

Anyway, back to Minnesota which has a hodgepodge of judicial opinions interpreting the decision, some contradictory, and they mutate what seems like a simple rule into something that is anything but simple. A prior court opinion interpreted the phrase “attacks or injures any person” to mean one of two things: (1) attacks means that the dog moves with violent intent; and (2) injures means nonhostile behavior (like playfully jumping up on a person in greeting) that injures a person. Never mind that “injures” actually means “to cause injury.”
So now we have a law that a dog owner is responsible for injuries caused when the dog attacks a person or causes injury to a person when not acting violently. Here, the Minnesota Supreme Court was then asked to decide in Anderson whether a dog owner was responsible in this scenario: Dog A (50 lbs) attacks Dog B (20 lbs). Dog B’s owner was lawfully walking Dog B. Dog B’s owner tried to save his dog, and falls, breaking his hip.

Now, under my interpretation of the statute, it appears the owner is responsible because his dog did something (attacking the other dog) that caused injury to the plaintiff. In Minnesota, however, the court had to do some legal wrangling to get the plaintiff a shot at a jury verdict. They decided that the dog attack/injury statute requires a finding that the injuries were directly and immediately caused by the dog’s behavior. There are three scenarios, which are for the jury to decide:

  • Dog A’s attack on Dog B caused the plaintiff to fall
  • Dog A’s attack on Dog B caused the plaintiff to intervene and become injured, with the intervention being a direct and immediate response
  • Dog A’s attack on Dog B caused the plaintiff to intervene, but that intervention broke the chain of causation

The dissent gets it right—the majority punts the case back to a jury, regardless that all the facts are stipulated to by the parties. Where the facts are not in dispute, the court should usually make a ruling. The majority even fools itself into believing that the plaintiff was holding his dog on a short, non-retractable leash, so it is possible that his involvement was not voluntary. That wasn’t what I read from the facts….

(Note: It is fun analyzing cases in other jurisdictions. No fear of future reprisals.)

The most problematic part of the court’s analysis is one of those pesky dog injury cases in Minnesota history: A man was driving down the road with his dog. The dog put its head in the driver’s face, causing the driver to veer off the road and kill a child. The court decided that that situation was different and that there was no direct causation in that situation. It’s not really any different from the instant case. The instant case is worse—there was a voluntary action by the plaintiff that could conceptually break the chain of causation—a factor not present in the driving situation.

The take-home message for the Maryland legislature is clear: we need to be careful about crafting rules about dog owner responsibility. I’m sure Minnesota’s legislators had no idea that their simple rule would spawn so much litigation. There are lessons to be learned.

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