Law School Case Brief
Lewellin v. Huber - 465 N.W.2d 62 (Minn. 1991)
Legal causation for absolute liability under Minn. Stat. 347.22(1990), the dog owner's liability statute, must be direct and immediate, i.e., without intermediate linkage. The Minnesota legislature considered the statute to be designed for the protection of people who are subject to attacks and immediate harm from dogs, especially persons who come upon private residential premises lawfully.
On July 6, 1987, Tonia was driving her automobile with the dog in the back seat. The dog attempted to get in the front seat by climbing between the bucket seats. Tonia was distracted, and while attempting to get the dog settled, the car went off the road and ran over a 9-year old boy, Chazdon Lewellin, who was lying in the ditch. The boy was killed. On the basis of these facts, the trial court ruled that plaintiff trustee for the heirs of Chazdon Lewllin was entitled to recover damages as stipulated against appellant defendant dog owners for violation of the dog owner’s liability statute. The court of appeals, in a split decision, affirmed the application of the statute but reversed and remanded for trial because a genuine issue of material fact existed as to intervening negligence of the driver. The dog owners filed a petition for further review.
Were defendant dog owners liable for violation of the dog owner’s liability statute when the dog’s non-hostile behavior set in motion a chain of events that eventually caused injury to a person?
The Supreme Court of Minnesota explained that the issue in this case is how should the statutory phrase "attacks or injures" be understood? Does any conduct by a dog, no matter how innocuous, if it sets in motion a chain of events causing injury to a person, result in liability? Or is the ambit of liability something less? The Court chose the latter, thinking it is something less. In applying the Minnesota dog owner's liability statute, public policy and legislative intent are best served by limiting proximate cause to direct and immediate results of the dog's actions, whether hostile or nonhostile. The Court held that the dog owner’s liability statute did not apply to the case at bar because there was no direct, immediate connection between the dog’s behavior in distracting the driver and the injury to the child, who had been lying in a ditch.The Court reversed the appellate court's order affirming application of Minnesota's dog liability statute. The driver's subsequent efforts to handle the dog's distracting but nonattacking conduct introduced another link in the chain of causation. Though there may be causation in fact here, this chain of events is too attenuated to constitute legal causation for the radical kind of liability that the statute imposes. Consequently, we hold as a matter of law there is no causation for absolute liability under the statute. The Court then remanded the case to the trial court to permit the trustee to assert a negligence cause of action if he chose to do so.
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