In a recent decision, the Massachusetts Appeals Court analyzed M.G.L. c. 140, s. 155 – commonly referred to as the Dog-Bite Statute – and the damages available under the statute when a dog causes those damages.
As Parker | Scheer has previously discussed, the Dog-Bite Statute imposes strict liability on the owner or the keeper of a dog, if that dog causes personal injuries or death to a person. In other words, a person harmed by a dog need not prove that the dog’s owner was negligent, or that the owner should have known that the dog was dangerous to others and should have taken protective measures. Unless it is shown that the injured person teased, tormented, or abused the dog, under the statute, the owner is automatically liable for the injuries the dog caused.
In Irwin v. Degtiarov, the Appeals Court examined the statute, and was asked to decide what damages the dog’s owner could be liable for when another dog – not a human – is the victim of a dog attack. There, the plaintiffs’ Bichon Frise suffered severe internal injuries, external bruising, and wounds to the head, neck, abdomen, and chest, when the defendants’ unleashed German Shepherd attacked it on the plaintiffs’ property. The plaintiffs’ dog received emergency surgery, which saved the dog’s life, but at veterinary costs of over $8,000.
Following trial, a district court judge found that the plaintiffs had not teased, tormented, or abused the defendants’ dog to provoke the attack, and found the plaintiffs’ veterinary costs to be both reasonable and necessary, and awarded those damages in full. The defendants appealed, claiming that, because dogs are considered property under the law, the damages should have been capped at the market value of the dog, and arguing that it is unreasonable to spend more to treat a dog than it would cost to replace it.
The Appellate Division affirmed the award, as did the Appeals Court on further appeal. The court noted that the purpose of the Dog-Bite Statute “is to protect all persons, whatever may be their age or condition, who, through no fault of their own, are exposed to attacks from dogs, and to induce their owners and keepers to hold them under proper restraint and control.” However, as the court observed, although the statute extends strict liability to “any damage” caused by a dog, it does not explain how that damage should be measured.
When the claimed damages caused by a dog are to property rather than personal injuries, diminution in market value of the property – a common method of measuring property damage under Massachusetts law – may not, in all cases, be an adequate or satisfactory measure of damages. Thus, the court concluded, if it was reasonable in the circumstances to incur the veterinary expenses that the plaintiffs did incur as a result of the defendants’ dog’s attack on their dog, then the plaintiff was entitled to recover those losses. Because the plaintiffs had proven that those costs were reasonable, as well as necessary to the dog’s life, the Appeals Court affirmed the award of veterinary expenses to the plaintiffs.
Although Parker | Scheer’s personal injury lawyers focus their representation on persons who have suffered injuries or death themselves, rather than injuries to property, personal injuries often occur when a person is attempting to protect their own pets from an attacking dog. This ruling may provide some comfort to such persons, as it implicitly recognizes that the pets they are protecting may have a value greater than just their purchase price.