Law School Case Brief
Sinclair v. Okata - 874 F. Supp. 1051 (D. Alaska 1994)
An owner of a domestic animal becomes liable, regardless of fault, for injuries caused by the animal, which stem from a vicious propensity, known to the owner. The elements of an action for strict liability based on an animal's known dangerous tendencies are (1) the animal's owner knows or should know of the animal's "dangerous tendency," and (2) that the dangerous tendency results in an injury to the claimant.
On June 4, 1993, Daniel Reinhard was bitten by Anchor, a two-and-a half-year old German Shepherd dog. Daniel was two years old when he was bitten. Daniel's five year old sister, Michelle Levshakoff, witnessed the attack. Their mother, Katherine Sinclair, individually and on behalf of her children, Daniel and Michelle, filed suit in the Superior Court for the Third Judicial District for the State of Alaska. The named defendants included Yoshitaka Okata, Kazuyo Okata and Yoshihide Okata. Defendants removed the case to federal district court. Jurisdiction was based on diversity. The Sinclairs are Alaska citizens. The Okatas are citizens of Japan. The Sinclairs, joined by Daniel's father, filed an amended complaint with the court. In their complaint, the Sinclairs asserted causes of action based on negligence, strict liability, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and for loss of society and companionship. The Sinclairs seek compensatory and punitive damages. The Okatas argued that biting upon provocation was not sufficient to establish a dog's vicious disposition.
Is an owner of a domestic animal liable, regardless of fault, for injuries caused by the animal which stemmed from a vicious propensity known to the owner?
The court granted in part and denied in part the plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment on the negligence and negligence per se claims. The court granted the plaintiffs' motion for partial summary judgment on the question of liability against defendant dog owners' son. The court denied the plaintiffs' claim for summary judgment on the strict liability claim. An owner of a domestic animal was liable, regardless of fault, for injuries caused by the anima,l which stemmed from a vicious propensity known to the owner. There was no dispute that the dog had bitten four previous times. It was immaterial that the dog's dangerous propensity was driven by anger, playfulness, affection, or curiosity. Defendant parents were not negligent as a matter of law because they were not vicariously liable for the torts of their children. Defendant son, however, was negligent in leaving the dog unrestrained, and summary judgment was appropriate. The court held that the son violated Anchorage, Ala., Code § 17.10.020(A) (1986) because he had no competent voice control over the dog.
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