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Mueller v. Theis - 512 N.W.2d 907 (Minn. Ct. App. 1994)

Rule:

For purposes of Minn. Stat. § 347.22 (1992), the direct and immediate results of a dog's actions, require both that the dog's conduct be focused on the injured party and that the injury be the direct and immediate result of that focus.

Facts:

On the evening of Jan. 23, 1990, plaintiff David Mueller was driving a vehicle, and as he neared a driveway, he noticed a "figure" walking across his traffic lane about 80 to 100 feet ahead. David swerved to the left to avoid the figure, heard a 'little thump," turned to the right and skidded into a ditch on the right side of the road. The car rolled several times and David was thrown into the ditch; he suffered serious injuries that required several months of hospitalization. David's no-fault insurer, intervenor Farmers Insurance Group ("Farmers"), paid $ 60,000 in basic economic loss benefits. The "figure" that David saw was a dog that belonged to defendants James and Curtis Theis. David and his father, Kenneth Mueller, filed a lawsuit in Minnesota state court against the Theises for common law negligence and absolute liability under Minn. Stat. § 347.22 (1992) (dog owner's liability), for David's injuries. Farmers intervened in the action to assert subrogation claims. On Farmers' motion, the trial court granted partial summary judgment to the Theises, concluding David's inexperience as a driver and conduct after hitting the dog were "intermediate linkage" that broke the chain of causation and prevented application of the absolute liability statute. Thereafter, the Theises and the Muellers settled the remaining common law claims. Under the terms of the agreement, the Theises stipulated that David Mueller's injuries and damages, exclusive of no-fault benefits paid or payable, exceeded $ 100,000. The Theises agreed to pay $ 65,000 to settle the common law claims, although the Muellers reserved their right to appeal the partial summary judgment. The agreement expressly stated that the settlement did not constitute a duplication of benefits paid by Farmers.

Farmers then claimed it was entitled to reimbursement from the Muellers' settlement recovery, alleging the settlement duplicated no-fault benefits. Farmers also asserted a subrogation claim against the Theises. The trial court dismissed Farmers' claims under Minn. R. Civ. P. 12 and 56. The court found no evidence of double recovery and concluded the settlement agreement extinguished Farmers' claim against the Muellers. The court further determined that, based upon existing case law, Farmers had no cause of action against the Theises. Following entry of judgment, Farmers filed a notice of appeal as to the subrogation claims, and the Muellers filed a notice of appeal on the absolute liability claim under Minn. Stat. § 347.22. The appeals were consolidated.

Issue:

Did the mere presence of the dog on the road constitute affirmative conduct for purposes of the dog owner's liability statute, § 347.22 (1992)?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The appellate court affirmed trial court's judgment. The court held that the dog owner's absolute liability statute did not apply in the Muellers' action because the mere presence of the dog on the road did not constitute affirmative conduct. Additionally, where the dog's conduct was not focused on David, the driver, and David's injuries were not the immediate result of such a focus, the dog's conduct was not the direct and immediate cause of the injuries. The case further ruled that Farmers' subrogation claim against the Muellers because Farmers did not provide any specific evidence of double recovery. Likewise, Farmers' subrogation claim against the Theises failed because that right was only available against David, the insured driver, not the alleged tortfeasors.

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