Torts—Dog Bite—Homeowner’s Responsibility for Renter’s Dog

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Spirlong v. Browne, 698 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 4 (App., Div. I, October 28, 2014) (J. Norris)

DOG OWNER IS STRICTLY LIABLE FOR DOG BITE AND PERSON “KEEPING” DOG MORE THAN SIX CONSECUTIVE DAYS IS CONSIDERED OWNER BUT “KEEPING” REQUIRES PERSON HAVE CARE, CUSTODY AND CONTROL OF DOG

Browne rented two rooms in his house to Mayes who owned two dogs when he moved in.  Mayes and Browne's girlfriend Russell let the dog out one day and it bit a bicyclist. The bicyclist and his parents sued Browne, Mayes and Russell under Arizona's strict liability dog bite statute A.R.S. sections 11-1020 &  11-1025 (2012) which renders a dog owner strictly liable for dog bites.  A.R.S. §11-1001(10) (2012) defines dog owner as anyone who “keeping” a dog for six consecutive days.  Mayes and Russell allowed a default to be taken. Browne defended and the trial court ruled he was “keeping” the dog for six consecutive days and therefore was liable under the statute. The jury nonetheless returned a verdict in favor of Browne on comparative fault principles.  The Arizona Court of Appeals affirmed.

The court noted that the legislature did not define “keeping” in the statute, that the term has multiple meanings and is therefore ambiguous in this context.  Examining dictionary definitions the court concluded that merely allowing someone else to keep their dog at your house does not render the homeowner a “keeper” of the dog. “Keeping” under the statute requires the exercise of care, custody and control of the dog. In dog licensing statutes the legislature choose to use the words “keep” and “harbor.”  “Harbor” has a broader meaning and the legislature's choice not to use this word in the dog bite statute indicates an intent to restrict the scope of strict liability.  This makes particular sense in light of the fact the strict liability statute renders a dog owner liable for the dog even if the owner has no reason to know the dog might bite someone.  Here the evidence was uncontroverted that while the homeowner Browne allowed his renter to keep the dog at the house Browne exercised no care, custody or control over the animal and therefore cannot be held strictly liable for an injury caused by the dog.

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