North Carolina is a “one bite state.” A dog that bites doesn’t get a second chance. The owner may be strictly liable for any damage the dog inflicts on either a human being or on property.
This applies if a dog is older than six months and allowed to run free at night without its owner after the dog has already killed or severely injured a person, or was previously declared to be a “potentially dangerous dog.” A dog may be declared potentially dangerous if it has, away from its owner’s property, terrorized a person, killed or severely injured a domestic animal, or bitten someone so badly as to break bones or cause lacerations that require plastic surgery.
The owner of a dog bred or used for dog fighting can also be strictly liable for injuries or damage caused by his dog.
Mr. Covington was a landlord in Wilmington, and leased a home to Mr. and Mrs. Hewett. He knew that the Hewetts owned a Rottweiler named “Rocky.”
Mr. Covington and the Hewetts contacted Animal Control for advice about how they should properly manage the dog in their small compact neighborhood.
On the advice of Animal Control, the Hewetts created a separate fenced area in the back yard of the house with two gates with signs on each gate advising “Beware of Dog” and “No Trespassing.”
The Hewetts eventually bought the property from Mr. Covington. Meanwhile, Rocky had grown so large that they decided to keep him only in the fenced area. This turned out not to be enough of a precaution.
The Hewetts’ nine year old son had a friend over to visit, and led him into the fenced area while he refilled Rocky’s water dish. Rocky promptly bit his friend on the leg. The Hewetts’ son hit Rocky with a stick and then ran to get his parents.
Rocky briefly released the friend but then grabbed the boy by the shoulder in his massive jaws. Mrs. Hewett was finally able to make Rocky release him, and a neighbor pulled the boy over the fence to safety. Joshua suffered severe injuries to his leg and shoulder.
Animal Control officers arrived and took statements from witnesses. The Hewetts took Rocky to the animal shelter for a mandatory ten day quarantine and then decided to have him put down.
When the friend turned eighteen, he sued the Hewetts and also the Covingtons, but since Mr. Covington had died, the suit against him was dismissed, and the plaintiff re-filed against Mr. Covington’s widow directly.
The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Mrs. Covington, and the Court of Appeals of North Carolina agreed with that decision.
The basis was that there was no evidence that either Mrs. or Mr. Covington had any knowledge that Rocky was a dangerous dog. Rocky had not previously displayed any aggression, and no one had complained about him prior to the attack that led to this lawsuit.
The plaintiff argued that the fact that Rocky was a Rottweiler was enough to require the Covingtons to be aware that he might be dangerous. There had been testimony in other cases that the Rottweiler breed was aggressive, temperamental, suspicious of space and unpredictable. However, the Court found that the plaintiff’s argument had failed to present any evidence of the general characteristics of Rottweilers.
The only evidence on the subject was the testimony of Animal Control Officer Currie, who testified that it is the socializing of individual dogs, rather than their breed, that is more likely to determine their temperament. In fact, he testified that Rottweilers were not necessarily aggressive by nature.
The Court concluded that the Covingtons, as landlords with no knowledge of Rocky’s disposition, were not responsible for Rocky’s attack the plaintiff, and upheld the summary judgment in favor of Mrs. Covington.
If you or someone you know has been injured due to the negligence of another, contact an experienced personal injury attorney from the Tatum Law Firm today for a free consultation.