What is Minnesota's “Dog Injury” Law?

May 1, 2013  |  John T. Buchman

It is spring in Minnesota (finally) and people are finding many ways to be back outdoors enjoying the sun and nicer weather. Unfortunately, this can also bring an increase in incidents involving animal attacks, specifically dog attacks and bites as man’s “best friends” head back outdoors along with him.
Minnesota has long had a law that creates liability for dog owners whose “best friends” are decidedly unfriendly and bite or injure others. This is commonly referred to as the “dog bite” statute (Minn. Stat. § 347.22). This law was enacted in 1951.
Under the statute, “If a dog, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is acting peaceably in any place where that person may lawfully be, the owner of the dog is liable . . .” Thus, an injured person must establish that they did not provoke the dog, they were acting peaceably in a place where they might lawfully be and that their injuries were the “direct and immediate” result of the dog’s actions.
This law only applies to dogs and not cats. There is a bill currently in the legislature to include cats but it is uncertain whether it will become law. The law also applies to anyone who is “harboring” the dog (which means actively caring for the dog as opposed to offering a stray dog a meal from time to time).
The law makes the owner, in essence, strictly liable if the person did not provoke the dog and was acting peaceably in a place that they could lawfully be. The owner cannot avoid responsibility by blaming the injured person. They can’t claim what is commonly referred to as “comparative fault” or “assumption of risk.” The injured person doesn’t have to prove that the owner failed to take reasonable steps and the owner cannot try to avoid responsibility by claiming the dog had never bitten anyone in the past.
Minnesota Appellate Courts have looked into whether young children can provoke a dog and have recently determined that petting a dog is not provocation. The Supreme Court also did away with an oddity that was unique to Minnesota which required the injured person to show that the dog was focused on them when they were injured. The Supreme Court decided this in July of 2012*. A man was injured when his 20-pound miniature schnauzer, inaptly named “Tuffy” was attacked by a larger dog named “Bruno.” The person was injured while trying to defend Tuffy from Bruno. The Supreme Court indicated that Bruno’s owner/harborer was responsible even though Bruno was trying to attack Tuffy and not apparently trying to injure Tuffy’s owner.
The Supreme Court indicated it’s still up to a jury to determine if a person’s injury is the direct and immediate result of the dog’s actions or whether the injuries were too “attenuated” to justify strict liability. The Supreme Court had previously declined to hold the dog owner liable when the driver was distracted by the dog’s jumping around in the car, which caused him to leave the road and kill a small child that was walking nearby.
However, the statute also applies to more than just attacks or vicious actions by a dog. The statute uses the language “attacks or injures . . .” This applies if the dog’s actions directly and immediately cause injury to another. So if a dog playfully jumps up, knocks someone over and injures them or unintentionally runs over a small child while playing, the statute may apply and the owner would be responsible.
Dog owners have been liable for injuries caused even if there is no contact between the dog and the injured person. Prior Minnesota Appellate Courts established responsibility when a person was injured jumping off his bike to avoid a dog who ran toward him in a threatening manner as well as a person who dove out of the way of a large dog who ran down the sidewalk the person was using. The dog apparently was just running by without focusing on the person injured.
In these cases, the Courts held the owner responsible for the dog’s actions. This is something all dog owners should be mindful of when letting their dogs outdoors. If you have been injured as the result of a dog’s unruly actions or attacked by a biting dog, please contact the Personal Injury attorneys at Barna, Guzy & Steffen, Ltd. We have helped hundreds of people in the Minneapolis metro area and in Minnesota who have suffered dog attack injuries. Call us today!
*Anderson v. Christopherson, A11-191 MN 7-18-12.