Articles Posted in Dog Bites/Animal Attacks

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The separation of powers doctrine is central to our democracy. Unfortunately, however, the application of the doctrine can mean that some Texas personal injury cases cannot be resolved by the courts because they concern unreviewable decisions made by the executive and legislative branches.

In a recent case against a military contractor, a woman filed a lawsuit after she was allegedly bitten by a dog on a United States Army base in Afghanistan. She was working as an administrative clerk at the base, and one day the dog allegedly escaped from her kennel, ran toward her, jumped and bit the woman’s shoulder. The dog also bit her buttocks before it was pulled off of her.

The woman sued the company that provided dogs to the Armed Services, alleging that the company negligently trained and handled the dog and that the dog bit her as a result. The company had trained the dog in the U.S. before being sent to Afghanistan. The dog was stationed at the base to protect soldiers and others by sniffing out improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The company claimed that the Army was at fault because of its use of the dog and because of the way it housed the dog. The company also argued that the court could not consider the case due to the political question doctrine.

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In a recent Texas dog bite decision, the plaintiff sued after suffering injuries from a dog bite. The case arose in 2013 when he went with his girlfriend to the defendants’ house to meet the girlfriend’s father, who was staying with the defendants. He didn’t know the defendants, and the defendants didn’t know that either the plaintiff or his girlfriend were planning to come by the house.

The plaintiff and his girlfriend stood on the front porch and knocked. Nobody was home. After some time, the girlfriend opened the unlocked front door. The defendants’ dog, who was a 22-month-old Akita, came to the door. The plaintiff had stayed on the front porch and tried to shut the door when he saw the Akita. The dog went through the open door and bit him. Even though he was bitten, the plaintiff pushed the dog back into the house and shut the door. He had to go to the hospital.

He sued the defendants for negligent handling of an animal and for strict liability for a dangerous domesticated animal. He added negligence theories to an amended complaint. He claimed they were negligent per se for violating a duty set forth under section 822.042 of the Texas Health and Safety Code and that they should be held liable under premises liability law. He later amended again to add negligence per se. The trial court granted the defendants’ summary judgment motion.

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In Bowman v. Davidson, a Texas appellate court considered a case in which a guest at a couple’s home was bitten in the face by their dog. She suffered severe injuries and sued the couple. She claimed that since they had actual or constructive knowledge about their dog’s abnormally dangerous tendencies, they were strictly liable for her injuries, or alternatively they were negligent in failing to use reasonable care to stop the dog from hurting her. The jury found for the couple on both of these theories.

The plaintiff appealed, arguing that she was entitled to a positive jury verdict on strict liability as a matter of law, and in the alternative that the jury’s finding went against the weight and preponderance of evidence. The appellate court explained that the owner of a vicious animal may be held strictly liable for injuries in Texas. However, the owner of a non-vicious animal may be liable if he negligently handles the animal.

In order for strict liability to apply, the plaintiff will need to show:  (1) the defendant owned or possessed the animal, (2) the animal had dangerous tendencies that were abnormal for the type of animal it is, (3) the defendant knew or should have known of these tendencies, and (4) the tendencies caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

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In Rodriguez v. Reed, a Texas plaintiff appealed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the defendant in a dog bite case. The case arose when the defendant was contacted at work that his burglar alarm was going off. He left his workplace and went home. He turned off the alarm and determined nobody had broken in. Meanwhile, police officers came to his house to respond to the alarm call. The call noted that the front glass had broken and that there were multiple dogs in the home.

The defendant’s car was in the driveway when Officer Espinoza and Officer Rodriguez (the plaintiff) arrived. One of the officers determined that the car was the defendant’s. There was no broken front glass. The officers went to the side of the house and came upon a fence with a locked gate. One officer went to the other side. Rodriguez jumped the gate and drew his weapon. At that moment, the defendant opened the back door and let the dogs out. When the plaintiff went around the corner, two dogs came into the yard, and one of them bit the plaintiff in the forearm. The plaintiff shot the dog, killing him. He jumped back over the fence.

The officer sued on the grounds of strict liability, claiming that the dog was known to have abnormally dangerous propensities and claiming that the defendant had negligently handled the dog. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment that was both traditional and a “no evidence summary judgment motion.” The latter claims there is no evidence to support an essential element of the other party’s claim. The plaintiff filed a response that included statements from the defendant’s neighbors and copies of police records about prior alarm calls to the defendant’s house.

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The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that the dog population in the United States reached approximately 70 million in 2011. This means that over 35% of the U.S. population has a dog. Unfortunately, this also leads to a high incidence of dog bites and dog attacks.

Indeed, a report released by State Farm on May 15, 2013, revealed that there are approximately 4.7 million dog bite victims each year. Dog bites are not only a serious health and safety issue that can cause injury and even death, but dog bites can also cost dog owners, insurance companies, and the nation a great deal of money. In fact, the Insurance Information Institute estimates that in 2012, insurers across the country paid nearly $489 million in dog bite claims.

At the same time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 800,000 Americans seek medical attention annually for dog bites. Of those injuries, nearly half require emergency room treatment. According to Prevent the Bite, a nonprofit organization devoted to dog bite prevention, many of those injuries are to children. The organization reports that from 2001 to 2011, dog bites were the ninth leading cause of nonfatal unintentional injury to children ages 5 to 9 (512,638) and tenth for children ages 10-14 (412,895).

In 2012, State Farm alone paid about $108 million in dog bite claims in 2012. Although dog bite claims were down by 2.1% in 2012 from 2011, Texas (along with three other states on State Farm’s Top 10 states for dog bite claims–Illinois, Indiana, and Georgia) reported more claims. Notably, according to the report, Texas ranked number three in the United States for State Farm dog bite claims, behind only California and Illinois. Specifically, 236 claims were made in Texas alone, costing State Farm an estimated $4.3 million.

Summer can be the most dangerous time of the year for dog bites as kids, neighbors, friends, relatives and pets interact more frequently. The National Dog Bite Prevention Coalition and the CDC provide various tips to prevent dog bites, including:

1. Do not leave a baby or small child alone with a dog, even if it is a family pet.
2. Never put your dog in a position where it feels threatened.
3. Put your dog on a leash in public.
4. Do not play aggressive games with your dog (e.g., wrestling).
5. Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
6. Remain motionless (e.g., “be still like a tree”) when approached by an unfamiliar dog.

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