Property Ownership Not Enough to Establish Dog Ownership
The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently altered how Wisconsin's dog bite statute, Wis. Stat. § 174.02, can hold property owners liable for dog bite injuries. It is now more difficult to win money from the owner of a property where a bite occurs.
In Augsburger v. Homestead Mutual Insurance Company, the highest court in the state addressed the following question:
When an individual owns a dog, but the animal is housed on another's property, is the property owner a dog “owner” for the sole purpose of liability (and for the purposes of paying damages to an injured bite victim)?
The court held that merely owning property on which a dog lives is not enough by itself to establish ownership and liability for a dog's actions.
This may seem like a straightforward decision, but the crux of the matter asks how this will impact one's homeowners insurance.
A property owner's insurance company is from whom a dog bite victim has the biggest chance of recovering damages. Hence, a court's ruling will now require more in order to find someone (and subsequently his or her insurance company) liable under the dog bite law.
Effects of the Ruling
Under the ruling, a homeowner's insurance company will not cover the injuries caused by a dog for the sole reason that the policyholder owned the property. Rather, the policyholder (the property owner) must have exercised some level of control over the land the dog lives on in order to be considered a “harborer” and thus an owner who is liable for any bite-related injuries.
In the case, George Kontos owned property, which was purchased as a residence for his daughter and her family. Additionally, his homeowners insurance was through Homestead Mutual Insurance Company. Kontos allowed his daughter, her family, and her pets (horses and dogs) to live there free of charge, with no expectation of paying rent. Kontos lived nearby but not on the property, and he did not take care of the dogs during his few visits. His daughter's visiting friend, Julie Augsburger, was attacked by four of the dogs. Augsburger then sued the daughter, Kontos, and his homeowners insurance company.
It was agreed Kontos was not a dog owner in the traditional sense— he did not keep the dogs or physically care for them. But, for the purposes of being held responsible under § 174.02, the victim argued he “harbored” the dogs.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified the legal definition of “harbor” and stated that it means to “provide lodging, shelter, or refuge to a dog,” beyond just property ownership. It further clarified the definition and said one also has to look at all of the facts surrounding the property ownership. The court looked at the following factors to determine if Kontos harbored the dogs enough to be considered an owner and thus liable:
- Did the property owner live on the premises with the dogs?
- Was the dog owner (his daughter) more like a houseguest or a tenant? (If she was like a houseguest, then harboring most likely applies.)
Based on the facts, the court held Kontos did not fit the above requirements and could not be considered an owner under the dog bite law. As such his homeowners policy would not kick in and cover Augsburger's injuries.
Fortunately, the level of control required to show someone was in fact a harborer who could be held liable for the injuries is a determination the court will make on a case-by-case basis. The court will look at the totality of the facts—meaning it will look at the whole picture—before deciding who can be held liable. As such the facts in this case should not be viewed as a hard and fast line.
State law on any issue, even something as seemingly straightforward as dog bite law, is easily subject to new legal interpretation. This is why it so important to have an experienced attorney who is up-to-date on the latest legal developments. They will be able to evaluate your case and set you on the best path forward to recover for your injuries.
Contact a Wisconsin Dog Bite Injury Attorney
If you suffered an injury from a dog or animal bite, please contact one of our experienced Green Bay dog bite injury attorneys and Appleton dog bite injury attorneys at Herrling Clark Law Firm Ltd. today. With offices located in Appleton, Green Bay, Oshkosh and New London we are available to carefully review the facts surrounding your case to help you obtain the compensation you deserve for your injuries.