Dogs, Strict Liability and Summary Judgment

Dogs, Strict Liability and Summary Judgment

Recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s decision, which granted defendants’ summary judgment motion finding the strict liability and negligence claims failed based on the lack evidence to support such claims.

In Ruthann Becker, et al., v. Robert Liu, et al., No. 1 CA-CV 17-0515 (August 7, 2018), a memorandum decision, the facts were undisputed. Luigi Rosa (“Rosa”) was house-sitting for defendants Robert and Gina Liu. The defendants were on a 16-day vacation. On the last day of the trip, one of the defendants’ dogs got tangled in Rosa’s legs causing him to trip and fall. Rosa sustained a traumatic cervical fracture that rendered him quadriplegic.

This was not the first time Rosa house-sat and cared for defendants’ dogs. Rosa first undertook this task in 2007, then again in December of 2013, and a few months before the subject incident in March of 2014. During the three prior occasions, there was no incidents with the dogs. Until the incident on the final day of the 16-day vacation, Rosa did not complain to the defendants about the dogs’ behavior or actions.

Rosa sued defendants for his injuries alleging they were liable under three different claims. Rosa first claimed strict liability under A.R.S. § 11-1020, which states a dog owner or the person responsible for a dog has “full responsibility” for any injury to a person or damage to any property the dog may inflict “while at large.” The second claim was for strict liability under common law pursuant to the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 509 which provides a “possessor of a domestic animal” is liable for harm the animal does to another if the possessor knows or has reason to know that the animal “has dangerous propensities abnormal to its class.” The third claim was for negligence because the dog was “likely to do harm unless controlled” and defendants did not take reasonable care to control or confine the dog.

The defendants moved for summary judgment on all claims. Rosa cross-moved for partial summary judgment arguing the evidence established defendants’ dog, pursuant to A.R.S. § 11-1020, had been “at large.” Upon review of the evidence, the trial court granted defendants’ summary judgment. Strict liability under A.R.S. § 11-1020 failed because the dog was inside the home, and under common law, the dog had no dangerous propensities abnormal to its class. The negligence claim failed because the evidence did not establish the dog as “abnormally dangerous.”

A week after the judgment was entered, Rosa passed away. Ruthann Becker (“Becker”) was appointed personal representative of the estate and moved for reconsideration on the negligence claim. Becker argued, proof of an animal being “abnormally dangerous” had been a requirement under Restatement (First) of Torts § 518. At the time of the lawsuit, the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 518 governed claims involving animals and removed the requirement of “abnormal dangerousness.” The trial court agreed with Becker, but ruled defendants were still not liable because they did not possess or harbor the dog that caused Rosa’s injury. Becker timely appealed.

The Court of Appeals first examined the strict liability claims. Focusing on the statute’s language, the Court of Appeals held a dog is “at large” for purposes of A.R.S. § 11-1020 if it is “neither confined by an enclosure nor physically restrained by a leash.” A.R.S. § 11-1020(2). The subject incident occurred while the dog and Rosa were inside defendants’ home, which is ordinarily considered an enclosure.

As for strict liability under common law, the Court of Appeals found no evidence to establish the dog had “abnormally dangerous propensities.” Just because a person experienced an injury caused by a dog’s physical actions is not proof the dog had a “dangerous propensity.” James v. Cox, 130 Ariz. 152, 154 (App. 1981).

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling about the negligence claim because the undisputed facts established defendants had no reason to know or believe the dog might injure Rosa. The Court of Appeals analyzed the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 518, which states a person who “possess or harbors a domestic animal that he does not know or have reason to know to be abnormally dangerous” is liable for the harm the animal causes if he is negligent in failing to prevent the harm. While whether a party breached a duty and caused an injury are generally fact issues for a jury to determine, summary judgment is appropriate “if no reasonable juror could conclude  the standard of care was breached or the damages were proximately caused by the defendant’s conduct.” Gipson v. Kasey, 214 Ariz. 141, 143 (2007). As detailed in the undisputed facts above, defendants had no reason to know the dog if not controlled or confined would cause an injury to Rosa.

The Takeaway

While a case involving claims of strict liability may seem daunting, the specific facts and interpretation of the law may support a motion for summary judgment.

Keep Reading

More by this author