Dog bite cases typically involve specific laws that define the owner’s liability for injuries related to a dog bite or attack. The Court of Appeals discussed Tennessee’s dog bite statute in an October 19, 2017 opinion. The plaintiffs in the case filed a personal injury action against the owners of an Australian shepherd, which had bitten their son in the face during a visit to the owners’ home. The case reached the appeals court after the trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendants.
Under common law, an owner is liable for injuries inflicted by their animal if they know that the animal is accustomed or disposed to injuring people, even if it has never bitten anyone before. In 2007, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted the dog bite statute, which provides that a dog owner is held strictly liable if the dog injures someone because the owner failed to exercise reasonable control over the dog or the dog is running at large, regardless of viciousness. There is an exception, however, if the dog injures a person while that person is on the owner’s property. In such cases, the plaintiff must prove that the owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities to recover damages for the injury.
The plaintiffs brought a claim based on strict liability under Tennessee’s dog bite statute, as well as a claim under common law negligence. On appeal, the court held that the statute overrides a common law claim arising out of dog bites while on the owner’s property. Accordingly, the plaintiffs could only pursue the statutory claim, which required proof that the defendants knew of the dog’s dangerous propensities.