COA affirms summary judgment, rules for landlord in dog bite case

A landlord whose tenant’s pit bulls bit a mail carrier isn’t liable for damages, the Court of Appeals of Indiana ruled in affirming a trial court’s summary judgment ruling.

Tiffance Fields, a Hammond United States Postal Service mail carrier, had filed a complaint for damages in Lake Superior Court after being attacked by two pit bulls on June 1, 2019.

Fields sued the dogs’ owners for damages and included Constance Gaw, the landlord of the dog owners, in the complaint, claiming she also qualified as an owner under the state’s Dog Bite Statute.

The trial court granted summary judgment in Gaw’s favor, ruling that the landlord owed no common duty of care to Fields and that the dog bite statute didn’t apply to Gaw.

Fields appealed, but the appellate court affirmed, finding no genuine issue of material fact existed to preclude summary judgment.

Gaw’s summary judgment motion argued that her tenants owned the dogs, she wasn’t present on the day of the attack and she didn’t own any dogs located at or near the rental property.

Fields argued that by permitting her tenants to have two dogs at the property, Gaw qualified as an “owner” under the Dog Bite Statute.

The appellate court found that the word “harbors” in the statute was clear and had a specific meaning when it came to dog ownership.

“We conclude that it is a person who directly lodges, shelters, or gives refuge to a dog who is harboring a dog, as opposed to a person who merely owns and rents out the place where the dog is lodged, sheltered, or provided refuge,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote for the appellate court.

Riley said the court’s reading of the state’s statute found nothing that showed the Legislature wanted to expand it to include individuals responsible for dog bites as Fields claimed in her damages complaint.

The judge said there was no evidence that Gaw had any interaction with the pit bulls or personally afforded them lodging, shelter of refuge.

Chief Judge Robert Altice and Judge Rudolph Pyle III concurred.

This article was first published in The Indiana Lawyer.

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