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Supreme Court Decides on Dog Bite Law in Anderson v. Christopherson

On Behalf of | Nov 9, 2012 | Firm News, Personal Injury & Worker's Comp |

On September 27, 2009, Gordon Anderson was walking his dog, Tuffy, past Dennis Christopherson’s house. As the two walked past the home, Bruno, a dog owned by Mr. Christopherson’s son, Neil, picked Tuffy up in his jaws and would not release him. While Anderson was attempting to separate the dogs, he fell and broke his hip.

Anderson brought suit against Dennis and Neil Christopherson under claims of negligence and strict liability pursuant to the dog-owner’s liability statute. The district court relied on the holding in Mueller, and determined that in order for the statute to apply, the dog’s conduct must be “focused” on the injured party. Accordingly, the district court found that, as a matter of law, Minn. Stat. § 374.22 did not apply because Bruno’s focus was on Tuffy, instead of Anderson.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals’ Decision
On appeal, the Minnesota Court of Appeals confronted two issues: whether Bruno’s exclusive focus on Tuffy at the time of the attack prohibited the application of the dog-owner’s liability statute and whether Dennis Christopherson was “harboring” Bruno within the meaning of the law. Anderson v. Christopherson, 802 N.W.2d 832, 834 (Minn. Ct. App. 2011).

Relying partially on the holding in Boitz that the phrase “attacks or injures” means that injuries caused by a dog “outside the scope of a vicious attack” warrants protection under the statute, the Court determined that the dog-owner’s liability statute may apply to situations where a dog injures a person who was not the focus of the dog’s actions. Id. at 835. The Court based its decision, in part, on the argument that relying on a dog’s “focus” introduced a subjective element into the strict liability statute that would warrant an analysis of determining where the dog was directing his or her attention at the time of the attack. Id. at 836. The Court specifically noted that it “disagrees with the language in Mueller v. Theis, 512 N.W.2d 907 (Minn. Ct. App. 1994) that arguably added a requirement that the dog must also be “focused” on the injured person in order for the person’s injuries to be the direct and immediate result of the dog’s conduct.” Id. at 837. In addition, the Court noted that the phrase “or injures” in the statute negated the requirement that a dog must always be focused on the injured party. Id. at 836. Rather, by including this phrase in the statute, the Court noted that the legislature intended the law to include a “dog’s affirmative but nonattacking behavior which injures a person who is immediately implicated by such nonhostile behavior.” Id. (citing Lewellin v. Huber, 465 N.W.2d 62, 64 (Minn. 1991)).

The Court also analyzed whether Christopherson would be relieved of liability because the chain of events between the dog’s actions and the injury was too attenuated, as articulated in Lewellin. Id. at 837. The Court held that in this case, the chain of events connecting Bruno’s behavior to Anderson’s injury was an affirmative act that triggered Anderson’s response which, in turn, immediately resulted in his injury. Id. Because the ultimate question in this case now turned on a question of fact-the proximate cause of Anderson’s injury-the court of appeals remanded the case to the district court to determine whether Anderson’s injury was the “direct and immediate result” of Bruno’s behavior. Id. at 838.

In addition, the Court concluded that the district court’s reliance on definitions of “harboring” and “keeping” where inaccurate interpretations of the terms. Id. Consequently, it also remanded to the district court the question of whether Dennis Christopherson could be considered to be “harboring” or “keeping” Bruno within the meaning of the law. Id.

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s Decision
In its opinion dated July 18, 2012, the Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision and remanded both issues to the trial court. Anderson v. Christopherson, 816 N.W.2d 626, 632 (Minn. 2012). In the majority opinion written by Justice Page, the Court and reasoned that under Lewellin, the issue to analyze was not whether Bruno’s “focus” was on Mr. Anderson, but rather whether Bruno’s actions constituted an affirmative act that was the proximate cause of Mr. Anderson’s injuries. Anderson, 816 N.W.2d at 631. Essentially, the majority found that the situation at hand was distinguishable from Lewellin. Id.

Applying this test to the facts in this case, the Court concluded that because reasonable minds could differ in concluding whether Mr. Anderson’s injuries were the direct and immediate result of Bruno’s actions, it was a question of fact for the jury. Id. at 631-32. Specifically, the majority reasoned that there were three possible inferences that could be found:

(1) that the attack on Tuffy caused Anderson’s fall and injuries; (2) that the attack on Tuffy caused Anderson to intervene to protect Tuffy, resulting in the fall and injuries, with Anderson’s intervention being the direct and immediate response; or (3) that the attack on Tuffy caused Anderson to respond but broke the chain of causation.

Id. at 632.

For the second issue of whether Dennis Christopherson was liable as an “owner” under Minn. Stat. § 347.22, the majority relied on the definitions of “harboring” and “keeping” articulated in Verrett v. Silver, 309 Minn. 275, 277, 244 N.W.2d 147, 149 (1976). Specifically, the Court found that a jury could reasonably find that Dennis Christopherson was “harboring” or “keeping” Bruno by enabling his son to keep Bruno at his home. Anderson, N.W.2d at 633. The Court noted that Neil Christopherson had permission to bring Bruno to his parents’ home in Andover and that they had discussed rules for Bruno’s behavior while staying at the home. Id. at 633-34. Accordingly, the Court concluded that whether Dennis Christopherson fell into the definition of a “harborer” or “keeper” of Bruno was again a fact question for the jury. Id.

Chief Justice Gildea, who was joined by Justice Dietzen, wrote the dissenting opinion relating solely to the issue of whether the Christophersons where liable under the “attacks or injures” portion of the statute. Id. at 634. Chief Justice Gildea reasoned that Mr. Anderson’s decision to intervene in the tussle between Tuffy and Bruno was similar to the facts under Lewellin and was enough to make the chain of causation too attenuated to establish liability. Id. at 634-35. Specifically the she noted:

Creating liability for a dog owner not only when his dog directly and immediately injures the plaintiff, but also when the plaintiff is injured because the plaintiff decided to respond to the dog’s actions, is not contemplated by the statute and is inconsistent with our case law.

Id. at 636.

Chief Justice Gildea argued that the majority’s finding that there was a possibility of liability under this portion of the statute for Neil Christopherson was effectively overruling Lewellin without the proper basis to do so. Id. at 635.