Introduction

I love dogs. Some of my fondest childhood memories include “Bandit,”my black Labrador retriever, running with me in my front yard and romping in the pond on my grandfather’s farm. We were inseparable.

However, there are times when interactions between people and dogs are tragic and sometimes even deadly.

By the Numbers

According to a study conducted by the Center For Disease Control (CDC), approximately 4.7 million dog bites occur in the United States each year, and 800,000.00 of those bites result in injury requiring medical treatment. The U.S. population is approximately 325.7 million people as of 2017. That means a dog bites 1 out of every 69 people. Between 2008 – 2018, dog attacks resulted in 376 deaths in the United States; 182 of those were children.

The victim of a dog attack can end up owing thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical expenses. Victims also suffer from lost wages, pain and suffering, physical and emotional trauma, and more. Those who suffer death pay the ultimate price and their families are left to grieve because of a life that was wrongfully taken.

Responsibilities of Dog Owners: Criminal Liability – Dogs Running at Large

In the 1970s and 80s, it was the norm in the rural corner of West Tennessee from whence I come for all but small “house dogs” to run freely. There seemed to be a quasi-medieval code wherein dog owners understood the consequences their dogs faced if they were caught harassing someone else’s livestock, eating chickens, and the like. This is no longer the case. The decline in small scale farming coupled with an influx of people into rural areas who did not grow up in the country and do not share the values of the adults of my youth have forever altered the once “norm” of allowing hunting and sporting dogs to roam free. The “roam free” concept has not, probably since the early 1900s, been a norm in smaller to mid-size cities and towns in Tennessee. Running at Large laws address the increased danger posed to humans by dogs.

Running at Large

State law provides:

[T]he owner of a dog commits a[] [criminal] offense if that dog goes uncontrolled by the owner upon the premises of another [person] without the consent of the owner of the premises or other person authorized to give consent, or goes uncontrolled by the owner upon a highway, public road, street or any other place open to the public generally.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-408 (b).

The owner of a dog may be charged with and found guilty of a misdemeanorand fined if the dog, while running at large, causes damage to a person’s property or inflicts bodily injury on someone. If a dog running at large causes serious bodily injury or the death of a person, the dog’s owner may be charged with a felony. Assuming the owner has no prior criminal convictions, he or she could be sentenced to a maximum of two (2) years in the Tennessee Department of Correction (“TDOC”) if the dog caused serious bodily injury to someone, and could be sentenced to a maximum of four (4) years in TDOC if a person died as a result of an attack by their dog.

See Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-408 (g).

Punishment increases in all circumstances if the violation involves:

  1. A dog that was trained to fight, attack or kill or had been used to fight; or
  2. The owner of the dog violating this section knew of the dangerous nature of the dog and, prior to the violation of this section, the dog had bitten one (1) or more people that resulted in serious bodily injury or death.

By way of example, a person whose dog kills someone where one (1) or more of the above factors exists may be charged with a Class C Felony and be sentenced (again assuming the owner has no prior criminal convictions) to a maximum of six (6) years in TDOC.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-408 (h)-(i).

Exceptions to Criminal Liability

Where there is a law there is almost always an exception. Several exceptions exist here. A dog owner does not commit the offense of allowing a dog(s) to run at large and therefore will not be held to answer in criminal court if:

  1. The dog was on a hunt or chase;
  2. The dog was on the way to or from a hunt or chase;
  3. The dog was guarding or driving stock or on the way to guard or drive stock;
  4. The dog was being moved from one place to another by the owner of the dog;
  5. The dog is a police or military dog, the injury occurred during the course of the dog’s official duties and the person injured was a party to, a participant in or suspected of being a party to or participant in the act or conduct that prompted the police or military to utilize the services of the dog;
  6. The violation of subsection occurred while the injured person was on the private property of the dog’s owner with the intent to engage in unlawful activity while on the property;
  7. The violation occurred while the dog was protecting the dog’s owner or other innocent party from attack by the injured person or an animal owned by the injured person;
  8. The violation occurred while the dog was securely confined in a kennel, crate or other enclosure; or
  9. The violation occurred as a result of the injured person disturbing, harassing, assaulting or otherwise provoking the dog.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-408 (c).

As is evident, some of the exceptions are extremely factually driven. In other words, it is likely that a dog owner and a person injured by the owner’s dog will have vastly different stories as to what happened. The District Attorney General will reach a conclusion as to whether an exception applies or not, and if not whether to prosecute the dog owner. Only a jury, however, can make the final determination as to whether an exception applies; it is a highly factual determination left solely within a jury’s discretion.

Responsibilities of Dog Owners: Civil Liability

When Dog Running at Large Injures Someone in a Public Place or on another person’s Private Property


 

1. Exceptions (1)-(4) “shall not apply unless the owner . . . pays or tenders payment for all damages caused by the dog to the injured party within thirty (30) days of the damage being caused.” Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-408 (d) (emphasis added).

In 2006, 60-year-old Dianna Acklen was mauled and killed by three dogswhile walking in a residential neighborhood in the small Franklin County city of Decherd. In response, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted “The Dianna Acklen Act of 2007” which abolished the “first-bite” rule. Prior to this, owners could not be held accountable for violent acts of their dogs unless they were aware that their dog had previously attacked or bitten someone else. The Act amended the “Dog Bite Statute” by imposing strict liability on dog owners under limited circumstances.

For a dog owner to be held strictly liable for damages suffered by a person who is injured by the owner’s dog while in a public place or lawfully in or on the private property of another, a plaintiff must show only that, at the time when he or she was injured, the dog owner:

  1. Did not keep the dog under reasonable control; or
  2. Did not keep the dog from running at large.

The dog 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; hence the phrase “strict liability.”

Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-413 (a)(1)-(2).

Exceptions to strict civil liability exist under the Act. Strict liability will not be imposed on the owner of a dog if:

  1. The dog is a police or military dog, the injury occurred during the course of the dog’s official duties and the person injured was a party to, a participant in or suspected of being a party to or participant in the act or conduct that prompted the police or military to utilize the services of the dog;
  2. The injured person was trespassing upon the private, nonresidential property of the dog’s owner;
  3. The injury occurred while the dog was protecting the dog’s owner or other innocent party from attack by the injured person or a dog owned by the injured person;
  4. The injury occurred while the dog was securely confined in a kennel, crate or other enclosure; or
  5. The injury occurred as a result of the injured person enticing, disturbing, alarming, harassing, or otherwise provoking the dog.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-413 (b)(1)-(5).

Traditional Common Law Liability Retained in Second Part of “Dog Bite Statute”

At common law (that law developed in England from custom and judicial precedent and that continued to be followed in the British Colonies in America, after Independence, and to the present day) and under statutes that have adopted the common law rule, a plaintiff may only recover from a dog owner for damages suffered by a person who is injured by the owner’s dog 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 if

  1. The injured plaintiff can establish that the dog’s owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities.

Tennessee Code Annotated § 44-8-413 (c)(1).

In discussing its application of the common law rule in the 1914 case of Missio v. Williams, 167 S.W. 473 (Tenn. 1914), in which a woman was mauled in a Memphis street while on her way home from her job as a “scrubwoman” at the Peabody Hotel, the Tennessee Supreme Court observed that the rule is first found in Exodus 21:28-29:

If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall surely be stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.

Missio, at 473-474; Exodus 21-28-29 (emphasis added).

The “residential exclusion,” requiring persons injured by dogs in or at the residence of the dog owner to prove that he or she knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities, is a legal shortcoming that the Tennessee General Assembly should and hopefully one day will remedy.

Tennessee is the only state in the nation to retain the “residential exclusion.” Fifty percent (50%) of dog bites occur on the dog owner’s property. As such, the “residential exclusion” prevents many if not most people who are injured by a dog in or at the dog owner’s residence from being properly compensated for their injuries and the things which naturally flow from being injured – pain and suffering, loss of wages, emotional distress, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of normal activities, and the like.

The “residential exclusion” barred recovery in a Benton County case in which a seemingly friendly Australian Shepherd bit a little boy on his face as he sat in his mother’s lap in a chair inside the dog owner’s house. Searcy v. Axley, No. W2017-00374-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 19, 2017). The boy, whose mother had driven him to the dog owner’s home to visit with their daughter, suffered severe injuries. Axley, at *2-3. The “residential exclusion” results in other such outcomes.

Conclusion

Owners should be mindful that the law requires them to control their dogs and make sure they do not run at large. Injury by a dog to the property or person of another person can cost the dog owner money and possibly jail time. If you are a homeowner and have a dog (especially a breed generally known to be aggressive), check to make sure your homeowners’ insurance policy covers injuries to guests caused by your dog.

Persons who walk through neighborhoods or enjoy city parks should make themselves aware of their surroundings and note if an unleashed or uncontrolled dog is near. Also, no one should ever harass or provoke a dog. Like most other mammals, dogs will defend themselves.

What If You Need Help

If you or your child have been or are attacked by someone else’s dog, you are being sued by someone who claims your dog injured them, or you are being investigated by the police or charges have been brought against you based on injuries to someone else allegedly caused by your dog, you should not hesitate to explore your options with Jackson lawyer Brian Clay Johnson. Brian has practiced law for 17 years and has a track record of success and testimony of satisfied clients. Call him today.