The Common Law

Fifi Becomes Cujo – Responsibility to Render Aid or Stop Attack?

Fifi Becomes Cujo – Responsibility to Render Aid or Stop Attack?

A fairly developed body of law exists in Texas to address an owner's liability for a dog attack. Texas law generally follows the "every dog gets one bite" rule, which states that an owner will not be responsible for damages the dog causes unless the dog is dangerous and the owner knows of the dog's dangerous tendencies (see previous "Common Law" columns). But what if a friendly dog starts to attack another person? Does the dog owner have a legal obligation to render aid once an attack begins?

Yes, according to a recent Texas Supreme Court opinion. In Bushnell v. Mott (opinion issued on March 28), the Texas Supreme Court considered whether "the owner of a dog not known to be vicious owes a duty to attempt to stop the dog from attacking a person after the attack has begun." In this case, Bushnell knocked on Mott's door in order to deliver products that Mott had purchased. When Mott opened the door, her three dogs pushed open the door and rushed out. The dogs attacked Bushnell, biting her multiple times on her legs, arms, back, and shoulder. Bushnell filed a lawsuit against Mott and claimed (in part) that Mott acted negligently by making no attempt to stop the attack after it began.

The court discussed the "every dog gets one bite" rule but also noted that an owner of a nonvicious dog can still be liable for harm due to "negligent handling" of the animal. Considering whether failing to do anything to stop an attack after it had started was "negligent handling," the court stated that an owner can be liable "if he sees his dog [or cat] about to attack a human being and does not exercise reasonable care to prevent it from doing so." In short, the Texas Supreme Court recognized what seems like common sense: Dog owners can be legally responsible for harm caused by their dog (even one that had never demonstrated aggressive behavior) if the owner fails to attempt to render aid once an attack begins.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.

The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.

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