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Tennessee Homeowners Must Have Notice of a Dog’s Dangerous Propensities to be Liable in a Dog Bite Case

Posted on Feb 14 2016 3:10PM by Attorney, Jason A. Lee

A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals decision dealt with an interesting dog bite case question.  In Moore v. Gaut, 2015 WL 9584389 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2015) the plaintiff was bitten by the defendant’s Great Dane dog while the dog was in the Defendant’s own fenced in back yard.  The plaintiff was actually on the other side of the fence when he approached the dog. When he came close the dog bit the plaintiff on the face.  The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment because there was no evidence that the dog had any prior propensity for attacks and there was no evidence of any actual prior attacks. 

 

The plaintiff appealed this decision and argued that the large size of the Great Dane as well as the breed of the dog should cause the dog to be characterized as part of a “suspect class” of dogs.  Further, that this, standing along, is enough to establish a genuine material fact as to whether the plaintiff should have known the dog had dangerous propensities.  The Tennessee Court of Appeals was asked by the plaintiff to extend T.C.A. § 44-8-413 (a 2007 dog bite statute discussed below) and basically find that certain dogs are simply part of a “suspect class” of dogs because of their size, weight, strength, and general propensities. 

 

The appellate court noted that this argument by plaintiff is not found in prior Tennessee case law.  The Court therefore declined to vary from the well-established Tennessee rule in dog bite cases in Tennessee.  The Court stated that “[f]or cases like this one, where the dog caused injury on its owner's property, the statute clearly retains and codifies the common law requirement that a claimant establish that the dog's owner knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous propensities.” Gaut at 5. 

 

As noted above the Tennessee legislator adopted a new statute dealing with dog bit cases in 2007. This statute had not been addressed by the Tennessee Court of Appeals until this case.  It provides a clear statement of the law for Tennessee dog bite cases. The key portions of T.C.A. § 44-8-413 provide as follows:

 

(a)(1) The owner of a dog has a duty to keep that dog under reasonable control at all times, and to keep that dog from running at large. A person who breaches that duty is subject to civil liability for any damages suffered by a person who is injured by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in or on the private property of another.

(2) The owner may be held liable regardless of whether the dog has shown any dangerous propensities or whether the dog's owner knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous propensities.

……………………….

(c)(1) If a dog causes damage to a person while the person is on residential, farm or other noncommercial property, and the dog's owner is the owner of the property, or is on the property by permission of the owner or as a lawful tenant or lessee, in any civil action based upon such damages brought against the owner of the dog, the claimant shall be required to establish that the dog's owner knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous propensities.

(2) The element of proof required by subdivision (c)(1) shall be in addition to any other elements the claimant may be required to prove in order to establish a claim under the prevailing Tennessee law of premises liability or comparative fault.

 

As you can see, there is a clear distinction between dogs that are running at large and dogs that are contained within an individual’s property.  The Gaut case dealt with a dog on the owner’s property and the law remains the same in that circumstance.  The plaintiff must prove that the dog’s owner knew or should have known of the dangerous propensities of the dog.  It is not enough for the dog to simply be part of a “suspect class” of dogs due to its size and breed. 

 

Follow me on Twitter at @jasonalee for updates from the Tennessee Defense Litigation blog.

TAGS: Tennessee Premises Liability
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Jason A. Lee is a Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC. He practices in all areas of defense litigation inside and outside of Tennessee.

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Tennessee Defense Litigation Blog
Jason A. Lee, Member of Burrow Lee, PLLC
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