Rules Against Dog Owner
Austin, TX - The Supreme Court of Texas gets the "one-free bite" rule right. The court in this instance overturned two lower court decisions that held that the dog owner was not negligent after her three dogs attacked a woman while on-property. The Supreme Court ruled:
Texas' "first free bite" rule -- allowing dog owners to escape most legal liability if a previously gentle dog attacks -- does not free owners from the responsibility of stopping an attack once it begins.
The unanimous and emphatic opinion reversed two lower courts, which ruled that Genevia Bushnell (pictured) could not sue the owner of three dogs that attacked her in Fredericksburg in 2001, leaving wounds on her legs, arms and back that took more than two years to heal.
Bushnell said Janet Mott watched the attack from several feet away, did nothing to intervene and even scolded Bushnell's son for trying to calm the dogs so he could help his mother. Mott argued that prior court rulings excused dog owners from responsibility to stop an attack or render aid afterward -- if the owner had no previous indication that the pet was potentially violent.
In a state Supreme Court brief, Bushnell writes:
"The sweep and barbarity of Mott's position is breathtaking. Under the logic of Mott's argument, a dog owner can even watch her dogs kill someone who did not provoke the attack and was lawfully on the premises and still be free of civil liability."
Without addressing Bushnell's argument, the Texas Supreme Court said a pet owner "owes a duty to stop the dog from attacking a person after the attack has begun." Knowledge of a dog's nature -- whether violent or not -- plays no role in this basic duty, the court said in an unsigned ruling. The ruling reinstates Bushnell's lawsuit against Mott, whose lawyer declined to comment.
On a Sunday afternoon in March 2001, Bushnell, a health products distributor, arrived at Mott's mobile home to deliver items Mott had requested via e-mail. When Mott opened the door, three dogs pushed through, circled behind Bushnell, pulled her down the porch steps and began biting her "from all directions."
Mott did not intercede and later admonished Bushnell to get up, saying she had not been bitten.
Bushnell was taken to an emergency room and was treated for 15 dog bites, including one that needed 31 stitches to close. She then sued Mott for the $50,000 limit on her homeowners insurance, alleging that the attack left her with nerve damage, continued swelling in her foot and infections that required repeated operations.
Gillespie County trial court tossed out the lawsuit, as did the 4th Texas Court of Appeals, ruling that Bushnell failed to provide evidence that Mott knew her dogs were dangerous. In its opinion, the state Supreme Court said the lower courts mistakenly cited cases involving owners who failed to restrain their dogs. They also failed to address that Mott was negligent for failing to intervene in the attack.