The Case of a Deadly Dog-Related Personal Injury

The Case of a Deadly Dog-Related Personal Injury

In Becker v. Liu, No. 1 CA-CV 17-0515 (Ariz. Ct. App. Aug. 7, 2018) the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One considered the question of the extent to which dog owners are liable to a house sitter a personal injury caused by their dog. The Court held that a house sitter with earlier familiarity with a dog who was injured in a fall while the dogs were trying to reach their food bowl was not entitled to recover under regular negligence and under strict liability. 

Base Events: Luigi Rosa was house-sitting for the Liu family and caring for the Liu’s two dogs while they were away on a 16-day vacation. Rosa had watched the Liu’s dogs while they were away periodically since 2007. On the last day Rosa cared for the Liu’s dogs he was pouring out food for the dogs in their food bowls when they rushed to the bowls, while wearing their leashes. One of the dogs became tangled with his legs causing him to trip and fall. As a result of the fall, Rosa suffered a traumatic cervical fracture which damaged his spinal cord rendering him a quadriplegic. Luis was unable to move because of the injury and was found by the Lius later in the day when they arrived home from their vacation.

After the incident Rosa died due to causes unrelated to the injury. After Rosa’s death, Ruthann Becker filed suit as personal representative of Rosa’s estate, against the Lius.

Becker alleged that the Lius were liable for Rosa’s injuries relying on the following theories of recovery:

  1. Strict liability under A.R.S. § 11-1020, alleging a dog owner is fully responsible for any injury caused by a dog “while at large.”
  2. Strict liability under a common law theory found in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 509, which provides that “[a] possessor of a domestic animal” is liable for harm the animal does to another if the possessor knows or has reason to know that the animal “has dangerous propensities abnormal to its class[.]”
  3. Negligence in that the Lius did not take reasonable care to control or confine their dog and the dog was “likely to do harm unless controlled.”

Trial Court: The Lius moved for summary judgment on all three claims. Rosa cross-moved for partial summary judgment, arguing that no issue of material fact existed on the issue that the dog had been “at large” as defined by A.R.S. § 11-1020.

The Trial Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on all three claims and denied Becker’s cross-motion. The Trial Court ruled that no issue of material fact existed as to Becker’s assertion on the strict liability claims that the dog was “at-large” given that it was inside the house.

Further the Court held that no genuine issue of material fact existed on the issue of whether the “dangerous propensities abnormal to its class.”

The Court also ruled that no issue of material fact existed as to the negligence claim given that the evidence, even under the most favorable interpretation, would not show that the dog was likely to do harm thus requiring the Lius to exercise reasonable care control or confine their dog.

Appeal: Becker appealed the summary judgment ruling in favor of the defendants. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s findings. The Appeals Court concluded that given the lack of previous problems with the dog’s behavior, Rosa’s long-time comfort with the dogs as a house-sitter and, most importantly, the fact the personal injury arose from what can be considered “normal dog behavior” in moving towards their food quickly.

As such, strict liability or a liability for personal injury based on regular negligence would not apply in this case.

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