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Are Employers Liable for Dog Bites that Occur When Employees Bring Pets to Work?

Some businesses allow employees to bring their pets to work, whether occasionally or on a regular basis. Unfortunately, these animals can cause serious injuries. In the case of Frost v. Robave, Inc., the Illinois Appellate Court discusses whether employers are liable for off-premises attacks caused by aggressive dogs that accompany their owners to work.

The Facts

After taking his dog for an evening walk on January 3, 1994, Mr. Frost entered the mixed-use building where he lived (1347 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago). While Mr. Frost and his dog were in a common stairwell, Mr. Roberts, another tenant, left his apartment with the intent of checking his mailbox in the building’s lobby. As he opened the door, his dog, Jake, ran out of the dwelling and into the stairwell. Then, upon encountering Mr. Frost and his dog, Jake attacked. Mr. Frost attempted to separate the dogs and sustained a severe injury when Jake bit him. Following the incident, Mr. Frost claimed Jake had an unpredictable temperament and had also attacked other people on prior occasions.

Mr. Roberts was co-owner of Robave, Inc., a clothing manufacturing business located in the same building. Though the business was on a different floor than Mr. Roberts’s apartment, a common mailbox was used for both business and personal purposes. Additionally, Jake often accompanied Mr. Roberts to work at Robave. Though the parties disputed how frequently this occurred, they agreed that Jake was not “regularly” housed at Robave and did not “regularly” spend the night on its property even though there was a food bowl, water dish, and cage for Jake at Robave. The parties also agreed that the dog did not guard the business. Furthermore, Robave did not contribute financially to Jake’s maintenance; Mr. Roberts had purchased the dog, considered himself to be the dog’s owner, and personally paid for all of the pet’s expenses.

Mr. Frost filed a lawsuit against Robave alleging that the business was liable for his injuries under a negligence theory because it was Jake’s keeper or harborer. He also alleged that Robave was responsible under the Illinois Animal Control Act, which states: “If a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself in any place where he may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in damages to such person for the full amount of the injury sustained.”

Responsibility for Dog Bite Injuries

There are two theories under which an injured plaintiff may recover damages in cases involving dog attacks. The first is a violation of the Illinois Animal Control Act, and the second is a common law violation alleging that the pet owner has been negligent.

Under the Illinois Animal Control Act, defendants are responsible for dog attack injuries in situations when all of the following conditions are met: the defendant owns the animal, the animal is not provoked, the injured party behaves peaceably in the animal’s presence, and the injured party has a legal right to be present at the place where the injury occurs. To demonstrate that an owner is responsible for injuries under the Animal Control Act, plaintiffs must prove that all of these requirements were met during the incident in question.

For this type of case, the Animal Control Act defines “owner” as “any person having a right of property in a dog or other animal, or who keeps or harbors a dog or other animal, or who has it in his care, or acts as its custodian, or who knowingly permits a dog or other domestic animal to remain on or about any premise occupied by him.” In other words, one does not need to be a dog’s legal owner to be its “keeper” or “harborer.” Additionally, a firm, corporation, or partnership can also be considered a person (and thus a pet owner) for the purposes of the Animal Control Act. Therefore, people or businesses other than the legal owner may be held liable for dog attack injuries when all of the conditions above are met.

To be considered a “keeper” of a dog in accordance with the Animal Control Act, one must have control over the animal at the time of the injury. Similarly, to be a “harborer,” one must provide food and shelter of a “semi-permanent nature.” Illinois courts have also noted that employers are only considered to harbor a dog when the animal’s presence benefits the employer and not just the employee.

To prove a common law negligence violation in a dog attack case, plaintiffs must first establish that the defendant has a duty to protect the injured party from attack. This can occur when the defendant owns, controls, or has custody of the animal. Duty can also be imposed if the defendant is legally responsible for the property where an attack occurs. If a duty exists, the dog owner must then control animals with a history of aggression and take reasonable measures to prevent injuries.

The Decision

Robave made a motion for summary judgment, arguing that all evidence presented, even if interpreted in the light most favorable to Mr. Frost, was insufficient for a jury to find in his favor. The trial court granted the summary judgment, agreeing that Robave did not keep or harbor the dog and was not responsible for injuries caused off the premises outside of business hours. Mr. Frost then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, saying that Robave could be considered Jake’s owner within the meaning of the Animal Control Act.

Mr. Frost argued that because Mr. Roberts was en route to the mailbox used for Robave’s correspondence, he acted on behalf of the business when he exited the apartment and his dog attacked. Therefore, the business had custody and control of the dog and thus was its keeper.

The appellate court rejected Mr. Frost’s argument, saying he offered no authority to support the theory that Mr. Roberts was acting as Robave’s agent at the time of the injury. Instead, the court said Mr. Roberts was acting as a private person in his private apartment when he opened the door, therefore Robave did not have custody or control of Jake and was not the animal’s keeper. The court also noted that Mr. Roberts didn’t intentionally bring Jake along on the mail errand; rather, the dog escaped from the apartment, where it had been housed for the previous few hours. Citing the test of whether the dog’s presence benefits the employer, the court expressed its refusal to extend “keeper” status to an employer in situations when an employee, for his or her own convenience, brings a personal pet on a business errand.

The court also noted that Robave couldn’t be considered Jake’s harborer because the dog’s presence at the business didn’t benefit the company in any way. Additionally, all the food and water that Jake received on the Robave premises was provided by Mr. Roberts and not by the company. Therefore, the business did not contribute to the dog’s upkeep and did not harbor the pet. (Simply allowing the dog to be present doesn’t align with the Animal Control Act’s definition of “harborer.”)

Because Robave did not meet the established criteria to be considered Jake’s owner in accordance with the Animal Control Act, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision.

The appellate court also addressed the common law complaint. The court noted that although Robave isn’t considered Jake’s owner within the meaning of the Animal Control Act, it would still be possible for Robave to be held liable under a negligence claim if the business had a duty with regard to Jake. However, the court said there were no facts in this case that would impose a duty on Robave since the business did not legally own the dog, nor did it have custody or control of the animal. Additionally, the attack did not occur on the Robave premises. Therefore, the trial court’s decision was also upheld regarding the negligence complaint.

Conclusion

In situations where employees bring pets to work for their own benefit, but not for the benefit of the business, employers have no legal responsibility for injuries caused by those pets off-premises and outside of business hours. Additionally, businesses cannot be held responsible for dog attack injuries in circumstances where they do not own, keep, harbor, or control the animal at the time of the attack.

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