Law School Case Brief
Bussell v. Cty. Humane Soc'y - 50 S.W.3d 303 (Mo. Ct. App. 2001)
Under Missouri law, a dog owner is liable for injuries the dog inflicts only if the owner harbors the dog with actual or constructive knowledge that the dog has vicious or dangerous propensities. In order to establish a submissible case, it must be demonstrated that: (1) the dog has vicious or dangerous propensities, and (2) the owners had knowledge of such propensities.
Zane and Mary Scott acquired two Dalmatian dogs in April 1994. Later that month, the young male Dalmatian (Samson) bit the Scotts's neighbor-child. Samson was quarantined. After being released from quarantine, the Scotts moved Samson to live on a farm while trying to find another owner for Samson. Defendant Delores Tinsley contacted defendant Tri-County Humane Society regarding its procedures for accepting an animal, and the Scotts placed an advertisement in a newspaper attempting to give Samson away. Humane Society accepted Samson and placed him with another owner. Subsequently, Samson bit J.B., the minor neighbor-child of Samson's new owner. J.B.'s mother, plaintiff Mary Bussell, filed a lawsuit in Missouri state court in her individual capacity and as J.B.'s next friend against the Scotts, Tinsley, and Humane Society alleging that as the prior custodians of Samson, each failed to give adequate warning of Samson's history and vicious propensities to the new owner. The Scotts and Tinsley filed motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim and supporting exhibits. Pursuant to Rule 55.27(a), their motions were treated as motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Scotts and Tinsley. Bussell appealed, claiming that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of the Scotts and Tinsley because the Scotts owed a duty to the public to protect it from Samson, and there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the transfer of Samson's ownership and whether Tinsley acted as an agent for the Scotts and whether she made misrepresentations of fact as to Samson's nature.
Did the trial court err in granting the Scotts and Tinsley summary judgment?
The appellate court affirmed the trial court's judgment. The court ruled that it was not possible to demonstrate whether Samson demonstrated vicious propensities that would trigger the Scotts' duty to protect the public. There was no indication on the record that Samson's bite was one that would trigger the Scotts' liability for subsequent bites. Tinsley neither owned nor harbored dogs at any time, and had no knowledge of their propensities. As a matter of law, she could not be held strictly liable for Samson's actions.
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