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Maryland Court Considers Whether Non-Owner of Dog May Be Liable for Personal Injuries

When a dog causes bodily injury to another person, the owner of the dog may be held liable for damages in some situations.  In a June 9, 2021 Maryland personal injury case, the Court of Appeals considered whether, and under what circumstances, a non-owner may be held liable for injuries caused by a dog in their care.

The plaintiff in the case was sitting on her patio when a dog ran into her apartment through an open window, chasing her cat.  The plaintiff found the dog in the back bedroom of her apartment, where it had cornered the cat behind a cabinet.  As the plaintiff restrained the seventy-to-eighty pound dog by its collar, she injured her neck and left arm.  The plaintiff filed a negligence suit against the defendants for her injuries.

The defendants in the case were the plaintiff’s neighbor and his girlfriend.  The girlfriend, who worked and resided in New Jersey, would visit the neighbor nearly every weekend.  The neighbor testified that “we” adopted the dog in Maryland two years prior to the incident, and both defendants were listed on the dog’s veterinary records.  Although the dog primarily stayed with the girlfriend, she always brought the dog when visiting the neighbor, who had set up a tethered area for the dog in his yard.

After the close of evidence at trial, the circuit court granted judgment in favor of the neighbor, finding that he was not liable as an owner of the dog, nor as a person responsible for controlling the dog.  The plaintiff appealed the decision to the higher court.

In Maryland, a dog owner is liable for any injury, death, or loss to person or property caused by the dog while the dog is running at large, unless an exception applies.  The Maryland statute does not define “owner.”  On appeal, one of the questions for the court was whether the legal meaning of “owner” included keepers and harborers of a dog, as it did at common law in a strict liability case.

The court considered the legislative history of the statute and common law, as well as decisions of out-of-state courts interpreting similar statutes.  Ultimately, the appeals court held that a reasonable jury could find that, while his girlfriend was the primary custodian, the neighbor was also an “owner” under Maryland law.

In reaching its decision, the court explained that the evidence at trial had created a factual issue for a jury to decide whether the defendants had dual or shared authority over the dog while the dog was at the neighbor’s house, and whether the neighbor was liable as a keeper or possessor of the dog.  Ruling that the circuit court erred by entering judgment for the neighbor, the appeals court reversed and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

At Foran & Foran, P.A., our Maryland lawyers represent people who have been injured as a result of negligence.  We handle a range of personal injury cases, including actions arising out of motor vehicle collisions, medical malpractice, and premises liability accidents.  Request a free consultation by calling (301) 441-2022 or contacting Foran & Foran online.

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