THE LAW & MONEY: Dog-Bite Case Still Far from Being Over
Serving as a justice of the seven-person Colorado Supreme Court requires great versatility. These jurists must decide a variety of issues, including, well, dog bites. (I don’t mean to trivialize dog bites. In the U.S., there are roughly 4.5 million of them annually, 885,000 of that require medical attention. Of those, half involve children.)
I reference dog bites because, on May 27, the Supreme Court handed down a decision requiring interpretation of a phrase found in Colorado’s civil liability dog bite statute.
This case had its beginning in 2008 when plaintiff Renee Legro while riding in a sanctioned bicycle race through White River National Forest, was attacked and seriously injured by two Great Pyrenees that were on duty protecting sheep from predators. The dogs had a right to be on this land because their owners, the defendants in the case, held a Forest Service grazing permit for the land.
The phrase in question comes from a part of the dog bite statute that, in some circumstances, exempts a dog owner from liability if the dog doing the biting is a working dog. More specifically, the liability exemption exists if the “dog is working as a hunting dog, herding dog, farm or ranch dog or predator control dog on the property of or under the control of the dog’s owner.”
The Court of Appeals interpreted this phrase to mean that, for the exemption to apply, the “property” where the bite occurred had to be “under the control of the dog’s owner.”
But, after a short dissertation on how to properly read a statute, the Supreme Court disagreed. The correct way to read this statute, it ruled, is that it’s the “dog,” and not the “property,” that must be “under the control of the dog’s owner.”
In all events, this case – six years after the incident – is far from over. It’s now back to the trial court for a determination on whether the dog owners’ grazing permit caused the property to be their property and whether the dogs, which were left to perform their work based on training and instinct but were without immediate supervision (the shepherd on duty was a mile away), were “under the control” of their owners.
There are also unresolved questions about whether Legro might have a claim under Colorado’s premises liability act. That statute allows for injury lawsuits against people in possession of the property in some limited circumstances.
Addressing the Colorado dog bite statute generally, it starts out by saying that recovery for “serious bodily injury” from a dog bite occurring on public or private property is allowed without proof of negligence and “regardless of. the dog owner’s knowledge or r absence of information of the dog’s viciousness or dangerous propensities.” Thus, if Fido’s first bite causes a serious injury, Fido’s owner can’t defend by arguing that Fido is a loving family pet and has never before been aggressive. If a dog bite injury doesn’t rise to the level of serious bodily injury (death, disfigurement, fractures, etc.), an injured party must prove negligence to recover damages.
In addition to the working dog exemption discussed above, the dog bite statute protects a dog owner from liability if the injured person (the bitee) is trespassing, the property where the bite occurs is posted with signs stating “no trespassing” or “beware of dog,” or the dog was provoked.