At traditional common law, dog owners have knowledge of a dog’s violent propensities in order for a court to hold them liable for dog attacks. This led to the saying “Every dog gets one free bite.” After a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling on dog bites, dog bites are now a strict liability offense, which means that no knowledge or negligence is required for an owner to be held liable.
In Anderson v. Christopherson, A11-0191 (July 18, 2012), Neil Christopherson’s dog, Bruno, ran across the street and bit Gordon Anderson’s dog, Tuffy, in the stomach. Mr. Anderson tried to separate the two dogs, but fell and broke his hip.
The Minnesota Supreme Court had to decide
- whether the Bruno’s attack caused Mr. Anderson’s injury when the attack was focused on Tuffy, and
- whether Neil’s father, the owner of the house, could also be held liable as a “harborer” of Bruno, because he allowed the dog in the house and established rules for Bruno, even though he had only met Bruno once.
The Court decided that both issues could pass summary judgment and remanded to the district court for trial. The decision has greatly broadened the liability of dog owners and harborers.
Supreme Court Analysis
In order to determine whether the district court properly granted summary judgment to the Christophersons based on Bruno’s conduct being too attenuated to confer liability, we are required to construe Minn. Stat. § 347.22, the Minnesota dog owner’s liability statute. In its entirety, section 347.22 states:
If a dog, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is acting peaceably in any place where the person may lawfully be, the owner of the dog is liable in damages to the person so attacked or injured to the full amount of the injury sustained. The term “owner” includes any person harboring or keeping a dog but the owner shall be primarily liable. The term “dog” includes both male and female of the canine species.
We have previously held that the dog owner’s liability statute imposes absolute liability on any dog owner whose dog “attacks or injures” another. Engquist v. Loyas, 803 N.W.2d 400, 406 (Minn. 2011); Lewellin ex rel. Lewellin v. Huber, 465 N.W.2d 62, 64 (Minn. 1991) (“[L]iability is absolute. It makes no difference that the dog owner may have used reasonable care; negligence is beside the point. Past good behavior of the dog is irrelevant. Neither the common law affirmative defenses nor statutory comparative fault are available to the defendant dog owner. (The owner does, however, have the defenses of provocation and failure of the injured person to conduct himself peacefully while in a lawful place.)”).
We discussed the reach of the phrase “attacks or injures” extensively in Lewellin. See id. at 64-66. A dog “attacks” when it “ ‘move[s] against with more or less violent intent, implying aggressiveness in any sense and the initiative in the onset.’ ” Id. at 64 (quoting Webster’s Third New Int’l Dictionary 140 (1971)). An attack includes dog bites. Id. The phrase “injures” in the statute covers “a dog’s affirmative but non-attacking behavior which injures a person who is immediately implicated by such non-hostile behavior.” Id. We gave two non-exclusive examples of non-attacking dog behavior encompassed by the statute: “when a dog exuberantly jumps upon or unintentionally runs into a person and injures that person.” Id. We went on to explain: “[W]hen a dog attacks a person without provocation, there is no attenuated chain of causation between the attack and the injury. The cause of the injury sustained is itself the gist of the statutory wrong. Similarly, it is intended that there be no attenuated chain of causation when the dog ‘injures’ a person.” Id. With respect to causation under the statute, the “phrase ‘attacks or injures’ contemplates action by a dog that directly and immediately produces injury to the person the dog attacks or injures.” Id. at 65. Since Lewellin, the court of appeals has attempted to define the contours of the term “injures” and the legal causation standard under Minn. Stat. § 347.22. In Mueller v. Theis, the court of appeals created a two-pronged test: “that the dog’s conduct be focused on the injured party and that the injury be the direct and immediate result of that focus.” 512 N.W.2d at 910-11. Noting that the focus requirement is inconsistent with Lewellin’s discussion of proximate cause, the court of appeals in the instant case held that Lewellin contained no such “focus” rule. Anderson, 802 N.W.2d at 836; Lewellin, 465 N.W.2d at 64-65.
The court of appeals was correct in its holding that Lewellin contains no such focus requirement, and we reject the focus requirement articulated by the court of appeals in Mueller. The correct question to be answered under Lewellin is whether the dog’s conduct was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries such that injury was the direct and immediate result. 465 N.W.2d at 65. Lewellin requires that the dog’s actions constitute an affirmative act that injures someone immediately implicated by the act, and that the act be the proximate cause of the injuries. Id. at 64. Generally, under the common law, as we said in Lubbers v. Anderson, “proximate cause is a question of fact for the jury; however, where reasonable minds can arrive at only one conclusion, proximate cause is a question of law.” 539 N.W.2d 398, 402 (Minn. 1995). We have also said that, “for a party’s negligence to be the proximate cause of an injury, ‘the act [must be] one which the party ought, in the exercise of ordinary care, to have anticipated was likely to result in injury to others . . . though he could not have anticipated the particular injury which did happen.’ ” Id. at 401 (quoting Wartnick v. Moss & Barnett, 490 N.W.2d 108, 113 (Minn. 1992)). Under the dog-injury statute, “[p]roximate cause is rarely a disputed issue because the statutory phrase ‘attacks or injures’ contemplates action by a dog that directly and immediately produces injury to the person the dog attacks or injures.” Lewellin, 465 N.W.2d at 65. In order to be subject to the statute, “legal causation for absolute liability under the statute must be direct and immediate, i.e., without intermediate linkage.” Id. 9
While it is true as we said in Lewellin that legal causation is rarely disputed under the dog owner’s liability statute, it is also true that on occasion proximate cause will be disputed. See id. Proximate cause is ordinarily a question that arises in negligence actions, see, e.g., Lubbers, 539 N.W.2d at 401, although it also arises in other contexts such as cases involving absolute liability like the dog owner’s liability statute. See, e.g., Yennie v. Dickey Consumer Prods., Inc., No. C1-00-89, 2000 WL 1052175, at *1 (Minn. App. Aug. 1, 2000) (holding that to prevail on a failure-to-warn claim under Minnesota law, a plaintiff must establish that the lack of an adequate warning caused plaintiff’s injuries under an ordinary proximate cause analysis); Marcon v. Kmart Corp., 573 N.W.2d 728, 731 (Minn. App. 1998) (holding in a strict liability failure-to-warn case that plaintiff must prove that the alleged “defect was the proximate cause of the injury sustained”), rev. denied (Minn. Apr. 14, 1998); J & W Enters., Inc. v. Economy Sales, Inc., 486 N.W.2d 179, 181 (Minn. App. 1992) (stating that under “any theory of products liability, the plaintiff must show a causal link between the alleged defect and the injury”(citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Rodriguez v. Glock, Inc.,28 F. Supp. 2d 1064, 1070 (N.D. Ill. 1998) (“The labyrinthian concept of proximate cause is the same in negligence and strict liability in tort.”); McCarthy v. Sturm, Ruger & Co.,916 F. Supp. 366, 372 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (“To state a claim in either negligence or strict liability a plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant’s breach was the proximate cause of her injuries.”). Anderson v. Christopherson, A11-0191 (Minn. July 18, 2012).
Normally, owners are held liable only when their dogs directly bite a human. Proximate cause is rarely an issue. In Anderson, the proximate cause issue passed summary judgment even where Bruno did not directly attack Mr. Anderson. In doing this the Court allowed the possibility of a jury or finder of fact to find that the Minnesota Dog Owners Liability Statute extends itself to cover both direct and indirect dog attacks. This decision has broadened dog bite liability in Minnesota, so that dog owners are liable for even indirect injury caused by their dogs. The decision has also broadened the liability of dog “harborers” who allow dogs in their houses, feed dogs meals, or otherwise act as an owner would act.
Written by: Lucas Spaeth