Just about everyone realizes that dogs can injure people. And, let’s face it, most of us probably remember that mean dog we used to go out of our way to avoid on the walk home from school. Potential liability is just part of the package that goes with having a canine companion. Just how far, however, does that liability extend? (And, as an additional worry, will insurance provide the coverage you think it will if someone is injured?)
Many states, including Minnesota, have enacted strict liability statutes governing dog-related injuries. Generally, these statutes come into play where someone is bitten by a dog, but what about other injuries? Some states limit application of their statutes to bites, others take a broader approach. Minnesota’s statute falls into the latter category. But what happens when a person is injured even though the dog’s conduct wasn’t focused on that person? This is the question recently addressed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals in Anderson v. Christopherson.
In September 2009, Gordon Anderson was walking his dog, Tuffy, in front of Dennis Christopherson’s house when Bruno, a dog owned by Christopherson’s son Neil, ran out and picked up Tuffy in his jaws. Anderson attempted to separate the dogs and, in so doing, fell and broke his hip. Anderson then sued both Dennis and Neil, neither of whom were present during the incident, under the Minnesota dog-owner’s liability statute. The district court dismissed, concluding as a matter of law that the statute did not apply because, at the time of the attack, Bruno was focused on Tuffy rather than Anderson and because Dennis was not harboring Bruno. Anderson then appealed.
Under the statute, “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 court first considered whether the phrase “attacks or injures” applied where the injured person was not the focus of the dog’s actions. The court noted that prior cases had held owners liable for injuries suffered where a dog had bumped into a plaintiff, causing him to fall and break his wrist (Boitz v. Preblich, 405 N.W.2d 907 (Minn. App. 1987)), where a bicyclist injured himself dismounting a bike when a dog ran at him looking as if it would attack, even though it never actually touched him (Morris v. Weatherby, 488 N.W.2d 508 (Minn. App. 1992)), and where a mail carrier injured his back when a dog ran past him causing him to spin around (also Morris v. Weatherby, a consolidated appeal). The court then concluded that although the statute required some affirmative act by the dog, the use of the phrase “or injures” negates the requirement that the dog must be focused on the injured person. Further, the injury must be a direct and immediate cause of the injury and not interrupted by an intervening cause. In other words, if Bruno’s actions were the direct cause of Anderson’s injury, even though Bruno was focused on Tuffy, Dennis could be liable. The court of appeals thus reversed the district court on this issue and remanded for determination of whether Bruno’s actions were the “direct and immediate” cause of Anderson’s injury..
Next, the court addressed whether Dennis was “harboring” Bruno. Harboring a dog, under Minnesota law, means to afford the dog lodging or shelter or give the dog refuge. Unlike “keeping,” harboring need not involve more than a limited period of time. Because Dennis was arguably affording lodging, providing shelter, or giving refuge to Bruno by allowing Neil to keep Bruno at his home, the court reversed and remanded for a factual determination on this issue.
The lesson in all this is that liability for injuries related to dogs is quite broad. Even a friendly dog who never bites could cost you (or your insurance company) a substantial amount of money. Still, who can resist a face like this?