Tragic Tennessee Dog Attack Highlights Owner's Residential Liability

October 12, 2012

A 4-year-old Union County girl received more than 200 stitches and staples in her face after being attacked by the family's coon hound.

The animal was a rescue dog the family took in several months ago. The animal has been given to the Union County Humane Society. Its fate is uncertain, although the family reportedly thinks it should be euthanized, rather than readopted. Meanwhile, according to news reports, the family is struggling to determine insurance coverage as doctors say the little girl will need months of treatment. 98417_kiva_the_pit.jpg

We are a nation of dog lovers. The Humane Society of the United States reports about 40 percent of U.S. households own 78.2 million dogs. Unfortunately, serious and fatal dog attacks are not uncommon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 4.5 million people are bitten by a dog each year -- or more than 12,000 dog bites per day!

Nearly 1 million victims a year seek emergency medical treatment and more than 30,000 are forced to undergo reconstructive surgery.

Tennessee dog bite law was updated by the legislature in 2007 and now establishes strict liability for dog owners only under certain circumstances. The Dianna Acklen Act of 2007, T.C.A. sec. 44-8-413, provides that dogs must be under reasonable control and not running at large. "A person who breaches that duty is subject to civil liability for any damages suffered by a person who is injured by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in or on the private property of another."

There is also no liability for injuries that occur on a dog-owner's property unless the victim proves scienter, meaning that the dog owner knew or should have known of a dog's dangerous propensities. The Insurance Information Institute reports more than 50 percent of dog bites occur on a dog owner's property. Thus, under the new law, guests in a dog owner's home may not be covered by his insurance, while strangers on the street enjoy full protection. Tennessee is unique in having passed such a "residential exclusion," which is certain to undergo a battery of legal challenges as these cases make their way through the system.

As it stands now, a victim bitten on a dog owner's property must prove the defendant owned the dog, the dog caused the injuries, and the owner knew or should have known the dog was dangerous. As we see in this case, the rescue dog responsible for the attack could well be "rescued" again by another unknowing family.

The truth of the matter is these cases frequently involve a pet known to the victim, whether a family member's, neighbor's or close family friend's. And children are the most likely victim.

The risks increase as children begin spending more time inside with pets. End-of-year family gatherings and new pets invited into the family during the holidays also increase the risk. While adopting a dog, rescuing an animal or taking in a stray can be admirable alternatives to the pet store, none of these options are without risk. Choose a pet carefully. Supervise its interaction with the family and teach young children how to stay safe around dogs, whether the neighborhood pet or a stray on the street.

If you are dealing with an injury to a child in Tennessee, contact Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C. for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights at (865) 524-5657.

Additional Resources:

Mom: Shelter won't euthanize family dog after attack, By Stoney Sharp, NBC10 News, Sept. 28, 2012.

Tennessee School Bus Accident Injures 20, Published by Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., Sept. 20, 2012.