Mail Carrier Unsuccessful in Dog Bite Case Against Rental Home Landlord Under Indiana’s Dog Bite Statute

The Indiana Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s grant of summary judgment to a rental home landlord in a lawsuit for injuries and damages brought by a mail carrier who was attacked by two pit bull dogs at the landlord’s rental home. In Fields v. Gaw, Constance Gaw (Gaw) rented a home to Jason McClurg (Jason), who, along with Jill Fields (Jill), resided at the home and owned the dogs. The rental lease stated Jason could have two dogs or cats in the home. Tiffance Fields (Fields), a USPS mail carrier, was delivering mail to Jason’s home and was attacked by Jason and Jill’s dogs. Fields thereafter filed a lawsuit against Jason, Jill, and Gaw alleging they were liable for her injuries and damages under Indiana’s Dog Bite Statute, Ind. Code § 15-20-1-3.

Indiana’s Dog Bite Statute provides that an owner of a dog that bites a person, without provocation, is liable for all damages suffered by the person if the person was acting peaceably and was in a location where the person may be required to be in order to discharge a duty imposed upon the person by the laws of Indiana, the laws of the United States, or the postal regulations of the United States. Ind. Code § 15-20-1-3(a). An “owner” is defined in the Dog Bite Statute as the owner of a dog, including any person who “possesses, keeps, or harbors a dog.” Ind. Code § 15-20-1-2. Under the Dog Bite Statute, an owner is liable for damages even if the dog had not previously behaved in a vicious manner and the owner had no knowledge of prior vicious behavior by the dog. Ind. Code § 15-20-1-3(b). In essence, Indiana’s Dog Bite Statute renders dog owners strictly liable when their dogs bite the class of individuals set forth in the Statute without provocation.

Gaw filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that she had no duty of care to Fields, with her noting that Jason had full possession or control of the rental property, she was not present on the property when the incident occurred, and she was not the owner of, and did not have control over, the dogs. In response, Fields argued that because the lease agreement between Gaw and Jason allowed Jason to have dogs at the rental home, Gaw thereby “harbored” the dogs, making her an “owner” under the Dog Bite Statute. The trial court granted summary judgment for Gaw, finding Gaw was not “the owner of the dog at issue,” with “not even any inference… that supported [Fields’] argument that Gaw possessed, kept, or harbored the dog at issue.” The trial court also found no common law liability on behalf of Gaw and denied Field’s cross-motion for summary judgment. Fields only appealed the trial court’s judgment as to the applicability of Dog Bite Statute as to Gaw.

After first recognizing that there existed no Indiana precedent construing the word “harbors” as set forth in the Dog Bite Statute, the Court of Appeals turned to the question of whether the term was clear and unambiguous, as that is the starting point for courts in interpreting statuary language. The Court noted prior precedent in which the Indiana Supreme Court found no ambiguity in the term “owner” under a prior version of the Dog Bite Statute and referred to those who “possess, keep, and harbor” a dog as custodians, a term that entails more than a mere rental agreement allowing for pets. The Court also noted the Corpus Juris Secundum definition of “harboring” as “a person who affords lodging, shelters, or gives refuge to a dog for a limited purpose or time.” Accordingly, the Court of Appeals held the term “harbors” in the Dog Bite Statute is unambiguous, and means a person who directly lodges, shelters, or gives refuge to a dog, as opposed to a person who owns and rents out the place where the dog is lodged, sheltered, or provided refuge. Since Gaw did not personally afford the dogs lodging, shelter, or refuge, or otherwise have any interaction or contact with the dogs, the Court held Gaw was not an “owner” of the dogs under the Dog Bite Statute and affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Gaw.

You can read the full opinion here.

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