This case involved a young boy that was bitten on the head by a large aggressive dog that was chained to a tree.
An East Texas couple responded to a newspaper ad which offered a horse for sale. When the young couple arrived at the horse ranch they proceeded toward the corral. On the way they had to pass by an area where a large Alaskan Malamute was chained to a tree. The defendant husband assured the couple, who had their four year old little boy with them, that the dog was not a problem and the group proceeded to the corral. Unbeknownst to the couple, the dog’s cable allowed it to reach dangerously close to the corral and when the four year old little boy wandered a few feet from the corral fence the dog attacked, biting the little boy on the head. The little boy was taken to the emergency room where the laceration to his scalp was stapled. He required no further medical treatment, although a plastic surgeon testified that he would probably benefit from a scar revision after his body quit growing.
The defendant wife testified that she had been a professional dog breeder and that no particular breed of dog is any more aggressive or likely to attack than any other breed and that Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, Chows, Dobermans and the other “aggressive” breeds are only that way if they are trained and socialized to be aggressive. She testified that she had trained the defendant Malamute and that it was not an aggressive dog, that it had never bitten anyone, that she had no reason to believe that it would bite someone, and that she had never warned anyone that the dog was aggressive. Nonetheless, the defendant wife reluctantly admitted that she did not let her own grandchildren around the Malamute unsupervised and that after the attack she requested that the dog be destroyed. A neighbor testified that the defendant husband and wife had warned him before the attack that the dog was aggressive and to stay away from the dog.
The horse ranch was covered by a homeowner’s liability policy with a limit of liability of only $100,000.00. The homeowner’s policy was issued by a major Texas insurance company which offered only $6,000.00 prior to trial. At trial the little boy’s family requested that the jury award $100,000.00 in damages. The jury returned a verdict awarding $100,000.00 in actual damages and $50,000.00 in punitive damages.
This case illustrates several important principles. The case dispels the wives’ tale that the “first bite is free.” There was no evidence that the Malamute had ever bitten anyone prior to the attack on the little boy. However, there was ample evidence of the aggressive nature of the dog and the owner’s knowledge of that nature which resulted in a liability finding. Furthermore, this case illustrates that East Texas juries are absolutely intolerant of people with dangerous dogs and that juries will hold the owners of dangerous dogs strictly responsible for the damage that they do. It is interesting to note that one of the jurors owned a pit bulldog but emphasized during jury selection that she kept her pit bull fenced where it could not hurt someone.
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