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It’s a Dog Eat Dog World

Dogs are said to be “man’s best friend” (and woman’s too). They are our trusting companions and guardians, providing us company and keeping us safe. In fact, the news recently reported a Saugus woman is praising her dog for helping her fight off an attacker during her early October run. So, yes, woman’s best friend!

But, dogs are members of the canine family and with that come animal instincts. Sometimes a dog can become aggressive and attack another dog.

In that situation his or her owner may be strictly liable for the dog’s actions.  Mass. Gen. Law ch. 140, § 155. The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently discussed how much in damages a dog’s owner may be strictly liable for, for property damage caused by his or her dog – including injury to another dog or animal. Irwin v. Degtiarov, et al, 85 Mass. App. Ct. 234 (2014).

In the Irwin case, Mr. John Irwin’s Bichon Frise, Peppermint, was attacked by the Defendant’s German Shepherd. This happened when Mr. Irwin took Peppermint out in his front yard and the German Shepherd was outside, unleashed, and not under his owner’s control. The German Shepherd attacked Peppermint. Peppermint sustained “severe internal injuries, external bruising, and wounds to its head, neck, abdomen, and chest.” Peppermint’s injuries required emergency surgery, a four day stay at a Veterinary Center and two follow-up visits. Mr. Irwin spent $8,608.05 on Peppermint’s recovery (Peppermint survived!).

The parties fought over how much the German Shepherd’s owner should reimburse Mr. Irwin for Peppermint’s injuries and care. Mass. Gen. Law ch. 140, § 155 states the owner of the attacking dog may be strictly liable to Mr. Irwin, but it doesn’t explain how to calculate the amount Mr. Irwin could recover for Peppermint’s injuries. The German Shepherd’s owner argued it should be strictly liable up to Peppermint’s cost. Mr. Irwin argued he should be reimbursed for the expenses incurred for treating Peppermint.

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The Court looked at other Massachusetts cases that had similarities with the facts in Irwin and interpreted the meaning of the law to determine how to calculate the damages. The lawyers for both sides argued from old cases to apply the damages to the new case. In Irwin, the Court found the statute’s purpose to be remedial – its purpose is to provide a remedy for any injuries or damage caused by a dog. The statute is not intended to penalize a dog or its owner. Thus, the ceiling for any potential limit would be the amount of money Mr. Irwin spent on Peppermint’s recovery.

However, the Court suggested a number of factors that could be considered when determining whether Mr. Irwin should receive the full $8,608.05, including:

  • the type of animal;
  • severity of the animal’s injuries;
  • price of the animal;
  • the animal’s age;
  • whether the animal has special skills or traits;
  • the medical procedure’s likelihood of success; and
  • “whether the medical procedures involved are typical and customary”

All these factors, taken together, helped determine whether the medical care was reasonable.  In this case, the Court found the care to be reasonable because of the severity of Peppermint’s injuries, the cost of the medical procedures used on Peppermint, and because the medical procedures were ones usually used to treat animals that incurred Peppermint’s injuries. The entire $8,608.05 was approved. The fact that the amount exceeded the price of the dog was irrelevant.

The Court also noted that recovery is limited to the dog’s injuries. The Defendant is not liable for an owner’s hurt feelings, emotions, pain or loss of the dog’s companionship. But, the Court did say the owner’s affection for his or her pet could be considered in the reasonableness of the medical care that was sought for the injured animal.

If your dog or pet (the rules in Irwin will probably apply to a cat or other domestic pet) is injured by someone else’s dog make sure you keep all your vet bills and receipts – your personal injury attorney will need them so that you can work together to see if you can be reimbursed.