Owners Liability for Dogs

Nature of Clients Dispute: Neighbors dogs broke into my yard, and killed my children’s pets.

On about May 29th, my neighbor’s dogs, two Australian Cattle dogs, were not secured by the owner and they trespassed into my backyard, broke into a secure chicken coop by damaging it severely, and killed four of the chickens that were being lovingly raised by my 13 year old son and 8 year old daughter. My son and daughter were traumatized upon discovering the dogs in the coop with the dead chickens, blood, and feathers spread throughout the enclosure. The dogs had trapped themselves inside the coop and further damaged it as they violently tried to escape and to get at my children. Animal Control was called in and after a long struggle in which a back up unit had to be called in, the dogs were taken into custody. My wife and son filed an incident report with the Animal Control Officer. Six days after this happened, on the 4th of June, the dogs again were seen first fighting with each other in the street, after which time my wife called Animal Control, then later in my backyard again trying to get into the coop (which no longer has chickens in it) and then roaming around the yard and driveway such that my wife did not feel safe to leave the home. Good thing my kids were at school. They finally left the yard when they pursued a woman pushing a stroller. The woman had to confront them directly to scare them off. The Animal Control was unable to locate the dogs and therefore they were not taken into custody again. Since then, the animals have been seen by my neighbors out on the streets and in other peoples’ yards on several occasions. We are planning to file a citizen’s arrest warrant with an animal control officer and to file criminal charges, but wanted to consult a lawyer about filing a civil complaint as my family, and especially my children, are very upset about what has happened and continue to be terrorized by the dogs whom the owner does not feel a responsibility to secure even after what has happened. We want to act aggressively and quickly before someone (my neighborhood has lots of small children) ends up getting bit/mauled by these dogs. Thanks for your time.

Attorney Stan Prowse Response:

Nasty story.  I feel so sorry for your kids, and for you and your wife.

The law does not deal well with this stuff.  (I’m not so sure it deals all that well with anything, but that’s another story.)  Strict liability for a dog who bites a person is easy.  Without that, a lot rests on the owner’s prior knowledge that the dog is dangerous.  The emotional trauma to the kids is their claim (negligent infliction of emotional distress), but they can only sue by a guardian ad litem (you), who needs to be appointed by the court.  My guess is that the value of the property damage (including the chickens) is assured in small claims court (limit of $10,000).  But what you really want is a mandatory injunction against the owner to keep the dogs confined to his property.  In theory, a small claims court can issue injunctions, but that’s a tough sell in ten minutes.  A complaint filed as a limited jurisdiction case (under $25,000) in Superior Court would be a better vehicle, but if you have a lawyer, the fees might be prohibitive.  Then there’s possible retaliation by the guy when you sue him.