Dog Bite Liability for Harboring and Keeping a Dog

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Dog Bite Liability for Harboring and Keeping a Dog

Minnesota law provides that the “owner” of a dog is strictly liable for injuries sustained when a dog attacks or injures someone: “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.” Minn. Stat. § 347.22. The “owner” is responsible for damages even in the absence of negligence. Id; Lewellin ex rel. Lewellin v. Huber, 465 N.W.2d 62, 64 (Minn.1991).

The statute extends liability beyond the actual owners. Those who are “harboring” or “keeping” a dog are also liable: “The term ‘owner’ includes any person harboring or keeping a dog but the owner shall be primarily liable.” Minn. Stat. § 347.22. Thus, if you are taking care of someone’s dog as a favor or allow a dog on your property, depending on the facts, you may be considered an “owner” of that dog under the statute.

HARBORING VS. KEEPING

The Minnesota Supreme Court has explained the differences between “harboring” and “keeping” a dog:

A person “keeping” a dog is a person who “either with or without the owner’s permission undertakes to manage, control or care for it as dog owners in general are accustomed to do.” Verrett v. Silver, 309 Minn. 275, 277, 244 N.W.2d 147, 149 (1976). In other words, a keeper acts as if he or she is the owner but without legal ownership of a dog. A person “harboring” a dog is a person who affords lodging, shelters, or gives refuge to a dog for a limited purpose or time. Id. This is because keeping requires “more than the mere harboring” of a dog, or harboring itself would simply be the same as “keeping.” Id. (emphasis added). However, harboring must involve “something more than a meal of mercy to a stray dog or the casual presence of a dog on someone’s premises.” Id.

Anderson v. Christopherson, 816 N.W.2d 626, 632-33 (Minn. 2012). Based on this explanation, one can imagine numerous scenarios where a person could be “harboring” a dog-giving lodging, shelter, or refuge for a limited purpose or time-though not exerting the full management, control or care of a dog to rise to the level of “keeping” it. Significantly, a “meal of mercy” or “causal presence” on one’s property does not amount to “harboring.”

NOTABLE CASE: ANDERSON V. CHRISTOPHERSON

The recent case quoted above, Anderson, is a good example of how a homeowner could be “harboring” a dog even though he or she is not present with the canine. In Anderson, the home owner, Dennis Christopherson, allowed his son, Neil, to stay at his home with his son’s dog, Bruno. Neil had not lived in the home for several years. At the time of the incident, Neil was visiting his father’s house with his permission, as he had often done in the past. Dennis had established rules governing Bruno’s ability to stay at the home. Dennis had met Bruno just one time. Based on these facts, the Supreme Court held that a jury could reasonably find that Dennis was affording lodging, providing shelter, and giving refuge to Bruno by allowing him to stay at his home with his son.

In concluding the facts could allow a jury to conclude Dennis Christopherson was “harboring” Bruno, the Supreme Court specifically distinguished a case in which an apartment manager was found not to be “harboring” a dog because he had no right to control the inside of a tenant’s apartment. Gilbert v. Christiansen, 259 N.W.2d 896 (Minn. 1977). A significant distinction for the court was Dennis’ ability to control his property-to allow a dog for an extended period under certain guidelines.

It is worth noting the procedural posture of Anderson: the court of appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the district court’s decision to dismiss the case without a trial. In other words, the appellate courts found that it was up to the jury to decide if Dennis Christopherson was harboring Bruno. In Verrett v. Silver, 244 N.W.2d 147 (Minn. 1976), on the other hand, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a verdict in favor of a homeowner who let a woman stay at his house with her dog. She did not pay rent, and the dog was present for about a week when the owner went on vacation; the dog bit a neighbor boy the day before the owner returned. The jury was instructed properly regarding what constitutes “harboring” or “keeping” the dog per the definitions noted above. The jury’s role was to determine if the facts created liability on the homeowner. The jury rendered a defense verdict, though the facts are similar in some respects to Anderson.

THE JURY’S DECISION

Thus, both Anderson and Verrett illustrate that it will be up to the jury to decide when someone is “harboring” or “keeping” a dog based on the particular facts of each case. On occasion, courts will determine the issue without a trial-on summary judgment-but those cases have not involved a homeowner’s liability. See, e.g.,Gilbert v. Christiansen, 259 N.W.2d 896, 896-97 (Minn. 1977)(corporation that managed an apartment complex was not the keeper of a tenant’s dog that bit another tenant within the confines of the latter’s apartment); Wojciechowski v. Harer, 496 N.W.2d 844, 846-47 (Minn. App.1993)(landlord of a mobile-home park was not “keeping” a dog who was residing with a tenant of the mobile-home park); Carlson v. Friday, 694 N.W.2d 828, 831 (Minn. App. 2005)(as a matter of law dog groomer was keeper of dog when she accepted temporary responsibility for the dog, managed and controlled the dog, and attended to its bathing and grooming). As with most jury verdicts, Verrett demonstrates that the appellate courts normally will not reverse a verdict where the jury has decided a defendant was harboring or keeping the dog that caused an injury.

Significantly, if you are determined to be “harboring” or “keeping” a dog and the dog bites you or otherwise causes you personal injury, the dog liability statute prohibits you from suing the actual owner for damages. For example, in Carlson v. Friday, 694 N.W.2d 828, 831 (Minn. App. 2005), the dog groomer was deemed a keeper of the dog that bit her and therefore could not sue the owner for damages. The case of Kent v. Block, 623 N.W.2d 906 (Minn. App. 2001) is perhaps the most troubling decision in this area-at least from the standpoint of the adage “no good deed will go unpunished.” In Kent, a dental assistant agreed to tend to her bosses dog at his house each day while he was on a one-week vacation. On the first day when she got the dog out of the kennel and attached the leash for a walk, the dog bolted, pulling her shoulder out of joint. The trial court granted summary judgment finding she was a keeper of the dog for the purposes of the statute. The court of appeals agreed, and, as a result, she was precluded from making a claim under the dog liability statute. While it is feasible that a harborer or keeper could assert a negligence claim against the owner-which may not be barred by the dog liability statute-the plaintiff in Kent did not assert one, a fact noted by the court.

UNDERSTANDING LIABILITY

As the above cases illustrate, you should understand potential liabilities if you agree to take care of a dog or otherwise allow it on your property. At the same time you face potential liability to third parties for injuries arising from a dog bite or injuries otherwise caused by the dog’s actions, you could also be prevented from suing the owner if you are injured are injured by the dog if you are “harboring” or “keeping” mankind’s “best friend.” If you are the owner of the dog, under the liability statute you remain liable for injuries caused by your dog even if someone else harbors or keeps it, but you may find yourself in a lawsuit with the person who agreed to take care of your pooch.

Another interesting aspect of the dog liability statutes is under what circumstance a dog is the legal cause of an injury. Cases addressing legal “causation” issues will be discussed in a future dog bite post.
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