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Dog Days At Court

Some lawsuits do have their humorous aspects, so long as you are not a participant. I once tried a case (and won) where the main dispute concerned whose dog, landlord's or tenant's, produced the urine stains on the carpet. I would have thought that cases like that would never wind up in a trial, much less an appellate decision. But they do. Here are some more examples.

Fight Your Neighbor, But Don't Whack His Dog

Two neighbors engaged in a six-year-long battle, in and out of court, over the boundary between their properties and a rear fence that didn't follow the boundary. A typical beef. The details don't matter here.

Then one day one of the owners left his gate open, and his dog ran into his neighbor's yard. The owner heard his dog barking. Then the barking turned into squealing. He soon saw his dog, a 12 to 15 pound miniature pinscher, rolling down the slope and through the open gate and finally hitting a tree. The owner then confronted the neighbor, who happened to have a baseball bat in his hand. The bat had apparently propelled the dog into his downhill slide. The owner then ran into his house and grabbed his camera. (Both gentlemen were in the habit of photographing each other for the purpose of gathering incriminating evidence.) During the next conversation the neighbor said "We are going to kill your dog." The dog, in the meanwhile, had difficulty walking and needed surgery to fix his right rear leg.

Owner and neighbor wound up in court again. The neighbor defended by claiming that he felt threatened by the dog. That argument did not fly. Who would believe that a 15-pound, 12-inch tall dog posed a threat to a grown man? In the end the neighbor wound up paying not only for the veterinary bills, but also for emotional distress to the dog's owner. How about a judgment of over $150,000, plus $93,000 in attorney's fees, as the price for batting the dog? [ Plotnick v. Melhaus(8/31/12)]

What is the Dog Worth Anyway?

You may have thought, of course, the person who harmed the dog must pay veterinary bills. But that is not an obvious conclusion under California law. Another appellate decision analyzed the question of whether the defendant should be required to pay the lower of (a) the veterinary bills or (b) the market value of the dog. As you might imagine, there is no market for selling one's dog, especially an elderly one, and consequently no real market value. Unwanted dogs tend to wind up at a shelter.

The appellate decision combined two separate cases presenting that same question. In one case the dog ran into a neighbor's property and began barking. The neighbor's dog barked back. The neighbor ended the confrontation by shooting the owner's dog. The result was amputation of the dog's right rear leg and a vet bill of almost $21,000 for the owner. The second case involved a veterinarian who botched surgery on a dog. The vet caused internal bleeding and left a piece of surgical gauze inside the dog's body. The cost to fix those problems came to almost $38,000.

Under traditional law, when suing for damage to personal property, the plaintiff cannot recover more than the reduced value of the property due to the injury or, if lesser, the cost of making repairs. The appellate decision threw out that traditional measure of damages as applied to a wrongfully injured pet. Noting that there is "generally no market for other people's pets," the court saw no marketplace fixing a value. Yet the person who injures the pet should not be allowed to pay a pittance to the owner. The court adopted the view that "animals are a unique kind of property" and ruled that the defendant must pay the full amount of the veterinary bills. The defendant's attorney whined that the new rule would allow the plaintiff to run up a huge vet bill without restraint. That argument fell on deaf ears in the appellate court. [ Martinez v. Robledo (10/23/12)]

And Don't Sue the Pound If You Are Bitten.

Los Angeles County has an ordinance prohibiting any animal from causing a hazard or becoming a menace to the health, peace or safety of the community. Under this ordinance the County must capture any such animal.

Here we are talking about the pit bulls. Two pits jumped over a fence and attacked three young boys returning from school. There had been earlier complaints about the owner of the dogs, the number of dogs he kept on his property, and the dogs' athletic propensity to jump fences. The three boys sued the County over its failure to prevent the attack.

A legal rule, not well known to the public, is that a governmental agency can become liable for damages if it fails to perform a "mandatory duty," but not a duty involving the exercise of discretion. That rule came into play in this case. The County avoided liability because the court found that the determination of whether or not a dog creates a hazard or a menace to the community "is an inherently subjective process which requires the exercise of professional expertise and consideration of a host of potentially competing factors." Hence no mandatory duty. Therefore no damages.

Lesson: It is one thing to be bitten by a vicious dog. It is another and more painful experience to be bitten by a legal technicality. [ County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Faten) (9/5/12)]

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