Is a Dog Owner at Fault When Their Dog Is on the Road?

Owning a dog can bring a lot of joy, but ownership also comes with a great deal of responsibility. Everyone knows that dog owners are responsible for dog bites – but is an owner responsible for other injuries caused by their dog? In this article, we look at a situation where a motorcyclist sued a dog owner when he struck their dog as it laid on the road at night.

In the case of Coe v. Lewsader Ryan Coe filed a personal injury complaint against the Lewsaders because he was injured when he struck their dog, which was laying in the road, while riding a motorcycle at night. Ryan filed a claim under the Illinois Animal Control Act and his wife also filed a claim for loss of consortium.

In their defense, the Lewsaders argued that they were not responsible because Ryan was operating a motorcycle at 90 miles per hour, while intoxicated, at 2:00 a.m. at night and that a dog lying in the road does not meet the requirements for fault under the Illinois Animal Control Act.

Though to most non-lawyers, it seems obvious that, if true, a person riding a motorcycle at a very high rate of speed at night, while intoxicated, should have no legal claim at all, the court chose to focus on the conduct of the dog instead.

Under Illinois law, the victims of injuries caused by domesticated animals are protected by the Illinois Animal Control Act. The Animal Control Act reads, in relevant part:

Animal attacks or injuries. If a dog or other animal, without
provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, or injures any person who
is peaceably conducting himself or herself in any place where he or
she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is
liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the
injury proximately caused thereby

To recover money under the Act, the Plaintiff must prove:

  1. An injury was caused by an animal owned by the defendants;
  1. Lack of provocation;
  1. Peaceful conduct of the injured person; and
  1. The presence of the injured person where he has a legal right to be.

The Animal Control Act is almost what lawyers call a “strict liability statute.” A true strict liability statute offers no defenses, the Animal Control Act offers a few (provocation and trespass).

Though the Animal Control Act is commonly referred to as “Illinois Dog Bite Law” the text of the statute covers all manner of injuries by domesticated animals (though dog bites are the most common by far).

In this case, the court focused on the first requirement, was the injury caused by an animal owned by the Lewsaders.

In personal injury law, “cause” doesn’t always mean the same thing that it means when people say “cause” in ordinary conversation.

Though, the dog clearly caused the injuries since its presence was required for the motorcycle to strike it, courts have previously ruled that some overt act of the dog toward the injured party is required. Being a passive force is not sufficient, the dog must engage in affirmative behavior or activity.

In this case, everyone agreed that at the time of the accident, the dog was passively lying on the road.

To determine whether the dog was an active or passive force, the court looked to cases that had been previously decided for guidance.

In previous cases, the court had decided:

  1. That when a dog was instructed to move and proceeded to lay down on the stairs, it was not engaged in an overt act when the injured party later tripped on it.
  1. That a dog running between the injured party’s legs was an overt act;
  1. That a dog “getting in the way” of an injured party was not an overt act since it was predictable and the dog was not acting toward the injured party; and
  1. That a dog walking or trotting across a roadway could constitute an overt act.

In this case the Coes argued that though the dog was passively lying on the roadway at the time of the accident, it must have actively walked to get there. The court determined that the dog’s actions before the accident were irrelevant and therefore the case was analogous to the previously-decided case where the dog was passively lying on the stairs.

Accordingly, the court found that the Lewsaders were not at fault for Ryan’s injuries since their dog did not cause his injuries as contemplated by the Animal Control Act.

Because of this decision, the law in Illinois now holds that the owners of a dog that passively lies on the roadway are not responsible for injuries it cases to motorists under the Animal Control Act.

That said, there is a good chance the Lewsaders could have been at fault because they were negligent (did not use ordinary care to contain their dog). In this particular case, a negligence claim was made, but then withdrawn. The likely reason the Coes did not proceed with the negligence claim is that careless conduct of the injured party is a defense to negligence. Here, if the facts alleged by defendants were true, Ryan Coe was clearly very careless and the Lewsaders would have easily won based on their defense.

As mentioned earlier, the Animal Control Act has few defenses and carelessness by the injured party probably is not a defense. Thus, the Coes elected to solely argue a violation of the Act.

Bottom line: Animal owners are not legally responsible under the Animal Control Act if their animal passively lies on the roadway. However, they may be at fault for negligent conduct, but negligence on the part of the injured party may defeat the negligence claim.