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Liability for Dog Bites in Texas

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.

In this case, the jury found that the couple neither knew nor had reason to know the dog was dangerous in a way not normal for a dog. The dog at issue was an Australian Blue Heeler. The female owner testified that the dog was protective of her and known to jump at the fence if strangers came up. The couple had posted signs for people to beware of the dog because a dog naturally bites. The couple’s friends and neighbors knew of his nature. The couple typically warned guests that he was an aggressive dog. Frequent visitors to the couple’s home testified later that the couple gave these warnings.

On the night the dog bit the plaintiff, the couple was hosting guests at home. The plaintiff was at the gathering as a date of the couple’s friend. The man she came with had warned her multiple times before and after they got to the party to avoid touching him or looking in his eyes and to watch out for the dog. She was given the usual warnings by the couple. She was also informed that the dog was so possessive of the female owner that the male owner couldn’t dance with her because the dog would get in between them.

She called the dog to come over to her and the dog came and put his head on her knee. After a moment. the dog went back to his female owner, showing no concerning conduct. When it was time to eat, however, the plaintiff sat next to the female owner with the dog on the floor between them.

The plaintiff asked the owner if she could feed the dog a French fry. The male owner testified that the female owner told the plaintiff the dog didn’t like French fries and it was best not to feed him them. While the plaintiff was bent over looking at the floor, the dog bit her in the face.

The plaintiff, however, denied she was feeding the dog at the time and said she had already dropped the fry on the ground and turned to the female owner when the dog jumped up. She was driven to the hospital. The bite disfigured her lip and permanently damaged her facial nerve endings.

Most of the couple’s friends later testified they hadn’t seen the dog act aggressively toward a person before. However, one long-time friend of the couple said that the dog had bitten or nipped him a year. He also testified that the injury could have been avoided if the couple put the dog away to avoid the bite. The couple agreed the dog was protective, but they didn’t think the dog was vicious or dangerous. They also stated that he was a heeler, a dog used to herd cattle, and so there was a natural tendency for the dog to have a herding instinct and nip an animal.

The appellate court explained that in a dog bite case, the controlling issue is whether the defendant has knowingly kept or harbored a vicious dog. The jury heard consistent testimony about the dog’s protectiveness of the female owner, but it had heard conflicting testimony about whether the dog was aggressive. The prior nipping of the couple’s friend was highly contested. The appellate court concluded there was some evidence to support the jury’s decision that the couple didn’t know or have reason to know of the dog’s viciousness until after he bit the plaintiff. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s judgment.

If you’re hurt due to an animal attack or dog bite, the experienced San Antonio personal injury attorneys at Carabin Shaw may be able to help you. Call our office for more information at 1-800-862-1260.

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