Supreme Court Rules in Dog Bite Injury Claim

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the defendant in a dog bite injury claim which claimed the owner of a property had responsibility for a dog that was not theirs.

The dog bite injury claim was made by Julie Augsburger who, on 21 June 2008, was bitten by her friend´s dogs when she visited her in the town of Larsen, Wisconsin. On arrival at her friend´s house, Julie was directed to the barn at the rear of the property by her friend´s husband; but as she entered the enclosed area at the rear of the house, Julie was bitten on both legs by four dogs that attacked her.

Julie suffer severe lacerations on each leg and made a dog bite injury claim against George Kontos – the owner of the property and father of her friend. In her legal action against Kontos, Julie claimed that he had an obligation to ensure the dogs were controlled as he was the owner of the property and thereby the “statutory owner” of the dogs as he was the one providing them with accommodation.

Kontos defended the claim made against him, and the case was first heard at the Fond du Lac County Circuit Court, where Judge Gary Sharpe found in Julie´s favor. Kontos appealed the verdict, but at the Appeal Court hearing, Judge Paul Reilly upheld the original decision – despite acknowledging that “hypertechnical application of the law” had gotten in the way of a common sense decision.

Kontos continued to defend against the dog bite injury claim and – with the support of his insurance company Homestead Mutual Insurance – took the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court. At the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Judge Ann Walsh Bradley found in Kontos´ favor, ruling that:

“Kontos is not an “owner” under the statute. A statutory owner includes one who “owns, harbors or keeps a dog.” Wis. Stat. § 174.001(5). It is undisputed that Kontos did not legally own the dogs and did not “keep” them. Additionally, we conclude that he was not a harborer as evidenced by the totality of the circumstances. He neither lived in the same household as the dogs nor exercised control over the property on which the dogs were kept. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals decision.