Dog owners in Maine can face liability for harms their pets inflict on others. In a 2012 case, a couple had adopted a pit bull mix from a rescue program. There was no warning that he was dangerous and the dog appeared to be friendly from the start, though he could get focused on cats. He wasn’t aggressive, but usually the couple was careful with him when he was around new people. He had been to two obedience classes.
An experienced pet-sitter came to meet the dog and familiarize herself with his routine so the couple could attend their son’s graduation ceremony. The dog responded well to her. However, the couple never told her the dog was part pit bull.
The couple left for their trip. The pet-sitter came at 7:00 pm and saw the dog in the unlit kitchen. She turned on the light and spoke to the dog and reached down to pet him, when he bit her in the face. She went to the bathroom, called 911 and waited for emergency personnel. The dog did not confront her again. She later told the couple she thought she had gotten in the dog’s face.
However, she filed suit against the couple claiming she had permanent facial injuries that required surgery. She sought damages on the basis of statute, common law strict liability and negligence. The couple moved for summary judgment and the court granted it.
The plaintiff appealed. The appellate court explained that Maine allows strict liability for injuries where someone knows or has reason to know that his or her dog has dangerous, abnormal propensities, even if he has done his utmost to prevent any harm, so long as the dangerous propensity led to the injury.
The trial court had granted summary judgment on the grounds that the law didn’t specify that pit bulls are abnormally dangerous per se or that the defendants actually knew their particular dog was dangerous. The appellate court explained that it wasn’t sufficient proof of notice of the dog’s dangerousness that the couple knew he had ben chained to a porch at his previous home.
Maine also recognizes negligence claims in dog bite cases. In this case, the couple had a duty to protect the woman from an unreasonable risk of harm from their dog to the extent it was foreseeable. Usually the issue of breaching that duty is one for a jury. In this case, the plaintiff had presented facts about pit bulls in general and this particular dog that she believed made her harm foreseeable. She also thought the couple should have told her the dog was part pit bull. The court reversed the lower court on the negligence count, ruling that this issue was one for a jury.
Dog bite cases may also be brought under 7 M.R.S. § 3961(1), which creates statutory liability. The court explained that the code section allows recovery by injured third parties, but not by a “keeper” (a person in possession or control of the dog) or “owner.” The court reasoned that whether the plaintiff’s status was as a “keeper” or not a keeper was unclear.
A jury could find that she never had possession or control of the dog. A jury could also find that a particular event made her a “keeper.” Therefore, the trial court could not rule on this point as a matter of law. The court vacated the judgment as to statutory and common law negligence, but affirmed the lower court’s ruling that there was no strict liability claim as a matter of law.
If you or a loved one is hurt by someone else’s pet, you may need the help of an experienced personal injury attorney to help determine appropriate theories of liability under Maine law. At Briggs & Wholey, our knowledgeable attorneys are available to answer any questions you may have. To schedule a free consultation with an experienced advocate, please contact Briggs & Wholey, LLC at (888) 596-1099 or through our website today.
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