Rutland v. Smith – NC Appeals Court Weighs Dog Bite Injury Claim

Dog bite injuries can be both frightening and painful, sometimes resulting in severe and even lifelong injuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 4.7 million dog bites every year, with 800,000 people requiring medical attention. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports the average cost of a dog bite-related hospital stay was more than $18,000.
But when it comes to recovering damages for dog bite injuries in North Carolina, there is a high bar of proof for the injured.

In a general negligence case, a plaintiff must prove a duty of care, a breach of duty, proximately-caused injury and damages.

The rules are a bit different when it comes to recovery for injuries inflicted by a domesticated animal. In these actions, plaintiffs have to allege and proof:

  • The animal was dangerous, vicious, mischievous or ferocious or had a vicious propensity;
  • The owner or keeper knew or should have known of the animal’s propensity, character and habits;

Essentially, the crux of these cases is not general negligence, but rather wrongful keeping of an animal with knowledge of its viciousness. Our Charlotte animal bite lawyers know North Carolina does not recognize strict liability for animal bite owners, so it’s imperative these elements be met.

A recent example of the hurdles necessary to overcome was displayed in the case of Rutland v. Smith, weighed by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

According to court records, plaintiff was a health insurance saleswoman who arrived at defendants’ home for the purpose of attempting to sell them a supplemental policy. Plaintiff parked her vehicle in the driveway, and the dog in question was chained in front of the garage. Plaintiff got out of her car and was approached by the dog. She allowed the dog to sniff her hand before she turned to approach the front door. At that point, the dog reportedly attacked her, causing her to suffer serious injuries.

Plaintiff later sued.

During deposition testimony, defendants noted the dog could “be a problem” around some strangers, and usually would advise unfamiliar visitors to avoid parking in the driveway for this reason. However, they also said this was just based on the general understanding that sometimes dogs could be territorial, and they had never actually seen their dog be aggressive with anyone.

Beyond this statement, plaintiff reportedly presented no further evidence indicating the dog was “vicious” or that the owners were aware of this propensity.

Trial court granted summary judgment to defendants and plaintiff appealed.

Upon review by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, justices noted in order to survive a summary judgement, plaintiff needed to at least indicated she would present some evidence to show the dog had demonstrated viciousness or dangerous tendencies before, either by biting someone or attempting to bite someone, and that the owner(s) knew about it.

Here, there was no evidence presented the dog had ever bitten or tried to bite anyone before. The owners’ instruction to strangers to avoid the driveway due to the dog was not enough to support an assertion of “viciousness” under the statute, and therefore summary judgment was deemed proper.

Contact our North Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Rutland v. Smith, Jan. 6, 2015, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
White v. Vermont Mutual – Homeowner Insurance for Dog Bite Injury, Dec. 25, 2014, Charlotte Dog Bite Injury Lawyer Blog

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