Is an Illinois dog owner responsible for a dog bite when the vet lets it escape?

In the case of Hayes v. Adams the Illinois Second District Court of Appeals was asked to determine whether a dog owner is legally responsible for her dog biting a third party when she left the dog at the veterinarian’s office and it escaped. The Court held that the owner could not be responsible because she tendered control to the veterinarian, could not have prevented the injury and had no reason to believe the dog would escape.

Tina Adams brought her dog, Gucci, to Carriage House Animal Clinic for a surgical procedure. At the vet, Tina removed Gucci’s collar and chain and the vet replaced it with a rope. Tina then left the clinic and went to work.

The clinic took Gucci for a walk using a noose and chain, as was their practice. Gucci got loose from the assistant that was walking her and ran away. The assistant chased Gucci who ran toward 8 year old Kristin Hayes who was waiting for the school bus. The assistant yelled for help catching the dog and Kristin tried to pick Gucci up. As Kristen tried to catch Gucci, the dog bit her on the hand causing pain and swelling. The bite resulted in three surgeries.

As a result of the dog bite, Kristin filed a lawsuit against Tina, the veterinarian and the clinic. Tina moved for summary judgment arguing that she did not have care or dominion over Gucci at the time of Kristin’s injury. The court granted Tina’s motion and Kristin appealed.

On appeal, the dispositive legal question was: Whether the legal owner of a dog is strictly liable for a dog bite when that owner did not have custody and control of the dog at the time it escaped and bit the victim?

The Animal Care and Control Act provides as follows: “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 a dog or other animal is liable in damages to such person for the full amount of the injury sustained.”

The Animal Care and Control act also 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.”

Thus, under the Animal Care and Control Act four elements must be proved for a defendant to be liable:

  • An injury caused by an animal owned by a defendant;
  • Lack of provocation;
  • The peaceable conduct of the injured person; and
  • the presence of the injured person in a place where he has the legal right to be.

Though the Animal Care and Control Act clearly holds the legal owner of a dog strictly liable for injures caused by the dog, the Court noted that it has not found any case in Illinois where the legal owner of a dog had given up control of the dog to a third party before the dog bit someone.

The Court reasoned that though strict liability is clear from the statute, courts routinely reject a strict liability interpretation and, without strict liability, there was no basis for a claim against Gucci’s legal owner as she was not in a position to control the dog or prevent injury. The Court found that when Tina gave up control to the clinic without any reason to believe the dog would escape or bite, any basis to impose liability was lost.

Accordingly, the Court upheld the trial court’s decision and found that the dog owner was not liable despite the the plain language of the Animal Care and Control Act.