Throughout Illinois, and especially in rural areas, it is common for families to own dogs as pets. Unfortunately, these pets sometimes act viciously toward humans and cause serious injury. In the case of VonBehren v. Bradley, the Illinois Appellate Court discusses the conditions under which dog owners are responsible for injuries caused by their aggressive pets.
In August 1989, Ms. VonBehren and her two-year-old son, Benjamin, made an unannounced visit to the Bradley home, located in rural Champaign County, Illinois. The families were acquainted because they were neighbors, and Ms. Bradley had also babysat for the VonBehren children in her home. When Ms. VonBehren and her son arrived, Mr. and Mrs. Bradley were at work. However, their sixteen-year-old daughter was at home babysitting her younger brother, Andy, and invited the VonBehrens into the home.
The boys went outside and played in the backyard unsupervised. While he was outdoors, Benjamin saw that the Bradleys’ dog had a bird in its mouth. He testified that he hit the dog several times in an attempt to remove the bird. Additionally, Andy said Benjamin pulled the dog’s tail and ears. The dog responded by biting Benjamin in the face, causing severe lacerations.
This was not the first time there had been trouble with the dog. The pet had a history of roaming freely and barking at those who approached the property. In addition, it had previously nipped both Andy and another child. It had also torn Mr. VonBehren’s pants on a prior occasion.
The VonBehrens filed a lawsuit against the Bradleys, claiming they acted negligently by failing to control their dog. They also claimed the Bradleys were responsible for their son’s injuries under the Animal Control Act.
Specifically, the VonBehrens alleged that the Bradleys were liable under a negligence theory because they knew of their dog’s aggressive history and therefore had a duty to exercise reasonable care for the victim’s safety. The plaintiffs also alleged that the Bradleys were financially liable for Benjamin’s injuries under the 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.”
Pet Owner Responsibility for Dog Attack 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, dog owners are responsible for injuries caused by their pets in situations when all of the following conditions are met: 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.
Furthermore, dog owners have a duty to control animals with an aggressive history only under ordinary circumstances—in other words, circumstances where the animal is not provoked. (Provocation is considered from the perspective of the dog and not from the perspective of the human—it is irrelevant whether or not the victim intends to provoke the dog.) However, pet owners do not have a duty to control their dog’s response to direct provocation. To prove negligence in a dog bite case, plaintiffs must show not only that the animal has a history of aggression toward humans, but also that the attack was unprovoked.
After the VonBehrens finished presenting their case at trial, the Bradleys submitted a motion for directed verdict, arguing the evidence was inadequate for a jury to find in the VonBehrens’ favor even under the most lenient interpretation. The trial court agreed and granted the directed verdict, saying the Bradleys could not have predicted Benjamin would be unattended on the property and interfere with the dog while it had a bird in its mouth. The court then denied the VonBehrens’ motion for reconsideration and a new trial.
The trial court found that although Ms. VonBehren and her son were legally present at the Bradley home and the dog had a history of aggression, the Bradleys were not negligent. In addition, the court said the Bradleys were not liable under the Animal Control Act because the dog was provoked.
The VonBehrens appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that foreseeability is not a factor in cases where a dog has a prior history of aggression toward humans. The appellate court agreed on this point. However, the court also stated that owners only have a duty to control aggressive animals in situations where they are unprovoked. In other words, pet owners have no duty to control vicious dogs that are provoked by human behavior.
The VonBehrens also argued that a directed verdict was inappropriate because provocation is not a bar to recovery in a negligence claim. They argued that whether the dog was provoked should be a jury question constituting contributory negligence. In other words, a jury should determine if the child’s failure to act responsibly may have contributed to his injury and combined with the Bradleys’ negligence when they failed to control their aggressive dog. As part of this argument, the VonBehrens also claimed that a two-year-child is legally incapable of contributory negligence.
Finally, the VonBehrens claimed that even if the dog was provoked by Benjamin’s actions, the animal overreacted to the circumstances, thus negating the child’s role in his injuries.
In reviewing the case, the appellate court concluded the trial court erred in issuing a directed verdict based on the foreseeability of Benjamin’s injury. Even so, the ruling was upheld. The appellate court rejected the argument that provocation by a two-year-old child should be analyzed under the defense of contributory negligence. Rather, the court determined that Benjamin provoked the dog by hitting it and attempting to remove the bird from its mouth. Additionally, the court concluded that the dog’s response was not an overreaction; although the boy’s injuries were severe, they resulted from a single dog bite—a reasonable response to Benjamin’s behavior. Because the dog was provoked, the Bradleys had no duty to protect Benjamin and did not act negligently. Lastly, the Bradleys are not liable for damages under the Animal Control Act because the act only applies in situations when an animal attacks without provocation.
Pet owners are not responsible for injuries caused by their dogs in situations where the animal is provoked by the injured party’s behavior. This is true even in cases when the dog has previously exhibited aggressive behavior. Furthermore, for legal purposes, victims of any age can be considered to provoke an animal since provocation is considered from the dog’s perspective and not from the victim’s.