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Are Dog Owners Responsible for Injuries Their Pets Cause in Response to a Child’s Screams?

When young children are frightened by a barking dog or other aggressive animal behavior, they often respond by screaming. This can result in the dog turning its aggression toward the child, which can lead to serious injuries. In the case of Robinson v. Meadows, the Illinois Appellate Court discusses whether the Animal Control Act deems pet owners liable in such cases.

The Facts

On October 5, 1985, three-year-old Jamie Robinson and her mother paid a visit to the Saline County home where Mr. and Mrs. Meadows resided. Ms. Robinson and Ms. Meadows were friends and former colleagues. Additionally, Ms. Meadows had provided childcare for Jamie in the past. When the Robinsons arrived at the home, they were greeted by Mr. Meadows. They went into the living room and Jamie played while the women talked. At times, the child conversed with Ms. Meadows while sitting in her lap. The girl also sat on a nearby ottoman while the adults talked. Ms. Meadows noted that Jamie was “being a good girl” and was well-behaved the entire time she was at the Meadows home. During the Robinsons’ hour-long visit, the couple’s two dogs came in and out of the living room as they pleased.

When there was a knock at the front door, the dogs ran to it and began barking. The severity of the barking is disputed; Ms. Robinson claims it was excessive and one of the dogs, Ben, “just went crazy.” She also said he jumped at the door. Ms. Meadows, on the other hand, said the barking was “normal” and neither dog jumped. However, both parties agree that Jamie screamed because she was frightened by the dogs’ behavior. Ben was approximately six feet away from her at the time, and he responded by attacking. She received severe puncture wounds and scratches on her neck, face, and throat. The dog also tore her lower lip.

Ms. Robinson immediately took her daughter to the local hospital, where it was discovered that a portion of Jamie’s lip was missing. The Robinsons were referred to a plastic surgeon, who operated immediately. He stitched Jamie’s wounds and excised a portion of her lip. The child’s lip was permanently shortened and she experienced significant scarring following the attack and subsequent surgery.

On behalf of her daughter, Ms. Robinson filed a lawsuit against Ms. Meadows. She alleged that Ms. Meadows was liable for damages in accordance with the Animal Control Act.

Pet Owner Responsibility for Dog Attack Injuries

Under the Illinois Animal Control Act, dog owners are liable 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 recover damages under the Animal Control Act, plaintiffs must prove that all of these circumstances apply. However, they do not have to demonstrate that the dog has a vicious nature or a history of aggression toward humans. (This is required only in cases where plaintiffs allege owner negligence.)

The Decision

At trial, the jury found in favor of Ms. Meadows. Ms. Robinson then entered a post-trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. (In other words, she argued the verdict should be reversed, saying that no reasonable jury could have found in favor of Ms. Meadows given the evidence provided.) When the motion was denied, Ms. Robinson appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court.

Because all parties agree that Jamie was peaceably conducting herself, was legally present at the Meadows home, and was injured by the Meadows’ dog, the only question for the court to consider was whether the attack was unprovoked.

Since the Animal Control Act does not define “provocation,” the court had to interpret the term. The normal, widely understood definition is “an act or process of provoking, stimulation or excitement.” However, this definition suggests that any act committed by any human being constitutions provocation. Such an interpretation is misaligned with the law’s intent, which is to ease the burden on plaintiffs wishing to recover damages in cases where they are injured by a dog with no history of aggression.

The appellate court felt that such a broad definition makes it impossible for plaintiffs to recover damages. While the court did not feel the act intends to make dog owners liable for all injuries caused by their pets, it also believed the act doesn’t intend to absolve pet owners of responsibility for all injuries caused by their animals. Therefore, the court concluded that a dog is provoked when an attack is “out of all proportion” to the injured party’s actions—in other words, when the animal’s response to unintentional provocation is unreasonable.

In reviewing the case, the appellate court concluded that the child’s scream triggered the dog’s attack. However, the court also concluded that the dog’s response was a vicious overreaction and was highly disproportionate to the scream. Using a reasonable definition of “provocation,” the court concluded that the girl did not provoke the dog to behave in this savage manner and the jury should not have issued a verdict in favor of Ms. Meadows. Therefore, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision, found  Ms. Meadows liable, and granted Ms. Robinson a new trial to assess damages.

Conclusion

In situations where injured parties conduct themselves peaceably and are legally present at the site of an injury, dog owners are liable if an animal overreacts to stimulation. Under the Illinois Animal Control Act, owners are only free from responsibility when their pets exhibit a proportional response to provocation.

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