Florida Statute 767.04 imposes strict liability on dog owners for bites inflicted on others, no matter whether the dog was known to be vicious or whether the owner had knowledge of such viciousness.
Strict liability means the owner can be held responsible to pay for damages caused by the bite, even if the owner didn’t do anything wrong. All that has to be shown is that defendant owned/ had control of the dog, the dog bit the plaintiff and plaintiff suffered injuries.
In the recent case of Arellano v. Broward K-9, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal was asked to weigh whether a plaintiff in a dog bite case was precluded in her dog bite claim against defendant due to her own actions, which defendant asserted were the superseding and intervening cause. The appeals court reversed the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of defendant, citing the strict liability portion of the state’s dog bite law.
According to court records, defendant supplied tow guard dogs to a commercial business in Miami. One Monday morning, an employee for defendant arrived at the business to feed/ tend to the dogs and found the dogs had escaped from the fenced-in yard. The business had apparently been victimized by a burglary the previous night, and the chain link fence that bordered the business and plaintiff’s property. Thinking that the dogs belonged to one of her neighbors, plaintiff fed and sheltered the dogs for five days, taking several steps to try and find the dogs’ owner. She sent an email to the local neighborhood watch group. She also contacted the local animal services to see whether there had been any dogs reported missing.
Plaintiff had two dogs already, and when she allowed defendant’s dogs into her fenced yard, she made sure her own dogs stayed inside. When plaintiff arrived home from work in the evening, she let her dogs out into her yard and secured defendant’s dogs in her laundry room.
Then one day when she came home from work, she found defendants’ dogs were missing. She let her own two dogs into the yard. Not long after, the guard dogs came back, and one jumped the fence. Plaintiff managed to get the dogs back into her house and her laundry room, but one broke free and attacked one of plaintiff’s own dogs. When plaintiff tried to intervene, defendant’s dog bit her, causing injury to her large toe.
While plaintiff was taken to the hospital via ambulance, Animal Control took defendant’s dogs and eventually determined who the owner was.
Plaintiff then filed her lawsuit, alleging damages for strict liability.
Trial court entered summary judgment for defendants, finding that while plaintiff’s actions were well-intentioned, they constituted an intervening and superseding proximate cause for her own injury. Trial court also entered a $7,600 judgment taxing costs against plaintiff.
Plaintiff appealed and the Third District appeals court reversed.
The statute is clear that a dog owner is strictly liable for injuries caused by his or her dog, and that this liability is reduced only by the percentage of the injured party’s comparative negligence that contributed to the bite.
Here, trial court held that plaintiff’s actions dispossessed defendant’s of ownership of the dogs and thus reduced defendant’s liability in this case to zero. However, this was a reversible error because the percentage of liability is a decision to be made by a jury – not a judge as a matter of law. Here, a jury could well decide that plaintiff’s actions in whole or in part were a proximate cause of the incident, which in turn would reduce or eliminate defendant’s liability. However, this would be the jury’s call to make.
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Arellano v. Broward K-9, Nov. 30, 2016, Florida Third District Court of Appeal
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