I just finished reading the latest pronouncement from the North Carolina courts on dog-bite liability. It is a topic more frequently adjudicated than I thought. A quick search reveals five reported appellate cases in North Carolina in the past four years, and I doubt many dog-bite cases get to the appellate level.
Being the owner of a pint-sized Maltese (Carlos) who is, pound-for-pound, the meanest dog in the world, I wonder whether Carlos is considered a dangerous dog. Could I be responsible for the damage inflicted by his canine canines?
In Stephens v. Covington, the court of appeals addressed whether a property owner was responsible for the behavior of a dog owned by a tenant living on the property. While the law appears somewhat unsettled, the appellate court held that before a landlord could be held liable for the acts of a rambunctious rottweiler owned by the tenant, an injured party must establish 1) the landlord had knowledge the dog posed a danger, and 2) the landlord had control over the dangerous dog’s presence on the property.
In this case, the plaintiff was eight years old when the dog bit him in 1996 and caused extremely severe injuries. He filed the lawsuit in 2011. Certainly the passage of 15 years posed an obstacle to proving that the landlord knew the dog posed a danger, especially given that one of the landlords had passed away, and the dog had been euthanized shortly after the attack. The appellate court held that without proof that the landlord knew the dog posed a danger, the injured plaintiff could not prevail, and the landlord was found not liable before a trial even commenced. As an aside, the dog’s owners were found liable for damages of $500,000 for the plaintiff’s injuries.
The Stephens’ case is not precisely on point for my dilemma, though the pun would be more refined if Carlos were a bird dog. A dog’s owner is responsible for the dog’s bite if there is evidence the dog has previously indicated its dangerous propensities, and the owner has knowledge of it. A dog demonstrates its vicious inclinations by trying to bite someone – the dog does not have to have succeeded on its first attempt. The one bite rule is an illusion in North Carolina.
Prior to reading the cases on this issue, I was not worried about the aggressive nature of our Maltese, for he has lost about half of his teeth and seems incapable of injuring even the soft food in his dish, even though he has the heart of a lion and the attack speed of a cobra. I ponder whether Carlos has indicated dangerous propensities. At eleven pounds, Carlos certainly is no bruiser, but does his mercurial temperament (my wife claims he is sweet at times, but she refuses a lie detector test on the subject) and repeated attacks on our cow-colored dog, in light of his half-set of decaying chompers, demonstrate vicious inclinations? I am (somewhat) worried. If you have a dog bit related concern, call Asheville Legal for a free phone consultation.