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Ask Our Lawyer - October 2002

Q: Everybody in my family loves Harleys, including Tippy, my dog. She loves them so much, she always chases them when they come down the road alongside our farm. Tippy isn’t with us any more, because the other day she was running with a Fat Boy and ran out in front of it. The bike hit Tippy and the rider was tossed over the handle bars. Both the rider and the bike were pretty messed up. Now the rider is suing me. Am I responsible?

A: Damn straight you are (or, as the lawyers would say, “probably”). The number of riders injured by “chasers” has increased dramatically. Most riders cannot appreciate the devastating effect of a “dog strike.” According to the motorcycle safety professionals, there are usually one of two results. The first, best, result is that you are traveling fast enough and the dog is small enough that you play “Evel Knievel” and ride over the top of the dog. Hopefully, you can keep it shiny side up after contact.
The other scenario is not so good for you (both are bad for the dog). Let’s say you hit “Mongo the Ox-Dog.” Your front wheel will instantly snap to full left or full right, and you and your bike go ass-over-teakettle down the road. This type of incident is responsible for many serious injuries.
Our ABATE Motorcycle Safety course teaches us to maintain our scan and be on the alert for dogs. Dogs attack in a straight line. Riders wary of dogs should anticipate that line, slow down and then, when the dogs get near, gear down and speed away. Unfortunately, this only works if we have picked up the dog in our rider scan.
Dogs are many things to many people, but to all them, dogs are a responsibility. Many localities have ordinances that require that pets be kept under control, and the common law of most states have holdings similar to this one: “The keeper of an animal has a duty to provide for the restraining and confinement of that animal, ... and may become liable for damages the animal causes when the keeper is otherwise negligent in the manner of its keeping and control. In such cases, the person in control of the animal is bound to take note of the natural propensities of the type and breed of the animal in question.” Vetor v. Vetor, 634 N.E.2d 513.
If your dog is a known “chaser,” then you have a duty to protect motorcyclists from the dangers of a “dog-strike.” That means that you are responsible for what your dog does, especially if you are aware of the “natural propensities” of the dog, like chasing motorcycles. If you know your dog likes doing certain things, like chasing Harleys, and somebody gets hurt because your dog was chasing the Harley, then you are responsible for the damages.
Of course, your responsibilities don’t end at the property line. One of the most prevalent claims arising from dog ownership involves dog bites. Most claims involving dogs will be subject to your homeowners policy. However, insurance companies report that dog-bite claims are rising. Because of that, some insurance companies are cancelling policies for homeowners whose dog has bitten someone. Some companies have even began cancelling policies (or refusing to write new ones) for owners of particular breeds of dogs, especially Rottweilers and pit bulls. While no company will admit that they blacklist these types of dogs, those breeds cause insurers to review the file more carefully.
Not all of those concerns are unfounded. The Centers for Disease Control report that more than 4.7 million people get bit per year, most of which are children. A May 1997 study by the Centers for Disease Control study shows that 65.8% of dog-bite-related deaths are attributed to pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds. Over 35% were by pit bulls. Responsible dog ownership of all breeds is the key to claim prevention. Factors such as whether the dog is spayed or neutered, properly socialized, supervised, humanely trained, and safely confined play significantly greater roles than breed of the dog alone.
The best way to make sure your home insurance won't get canceled because of your dog is to make sure it won't bite anyone and to take reasonable precautions to prevent the dog from getting out of the yard. Fences are generally supported, as well as efforts to socialize the pet with people and other animals. Completing obedience school, obeying leash laws, and keeping the dog healthy will also help prevent potential dog bites. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrate that the majority of dog-related fatalities involved unrestrained dogs, both on and off an owner's property. Spaying and neutering an animal can also improve its disposition, especially with male dogs. And always be careful around children. Children may not understand the dog’s warnings or have the skills to deal properly with a dog. Adult supervision is a must around kids and strange dogs.
Dogs are great companions, and raising dogs can be very rewarding, for both adults and children. All owners need to remember that responsibility for the dog is part of the package.

Next month we will discuss highway construction hazards and what to do about them. Stay tuned!

If you have any questions you would like to ask the lawyer, please submit them to: ASK OUR LAWYER, P.O. Box 2850, Indianapolis, Indiana 46206_2850, or email to brianshadiow@abatelegal.com.