Posted on Tuesday, June 13th, 2017 at 12:02 pm
The following post is part of our Law Student Blog Writing Project, and is authored by Ian Fasnacht, a law student from Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
According to the case Beckett v. Warren, Ohio residents may simultaneously pursue statutory and common law damages for injuries sustained as a result of a dog bite. Ohio’s dog bite statute does not permit punitive damages, monetary compensation award beyond medical expenses; however, dog bite victims may seek punitive damages under the common law if the victim can demonstrate the dog owner knew the dog was vicious.
Facts of the Case
A minor child suffered injuries to her head when she was visiting the home of Richard Warren and Mary Wood. Approximately two weeks earlier Mr. Warren and Mrs. Wood’s dog had attacked another individual, and Mr. Warren and Mrs. Wood took no additional precautions despite having a child in their home.
Common Law v. Statutory Law
Common law is judge made law, which means it is created in a courtroom by a judicial decision rather than by a legislature passing a bill. At the common law, to recover for a dog bite an injured party has to prove that (1) the defendant owned or harbored the dog; (2) the dog was vicious; (3) the defendant knew of the dog’s viciousness; and (4) the dog was kept in a negligent manner after the keeper knew of its viciousness.
The requirement that the dog owner had to know the dog is vicious in order for the injured party to recover created the “one free bite” problem. Unless the injured party could prove a previous person had been bitten he/she could not recover. Therefore, a dog owner could escape liability for one bite before he/she could be held liable for injuries sustained as a result of their dog’s bite.
Ohio codified – meaning they created a statute – the common law dog bite rule, but took out the knowledge requirement. Therefore, Ohio’s dog bite statute, R.C. 955.28, is strict liability. The injured party only needs to prove that (1) ownership or keepership [or harborship] of the dog; (2) whether the dog’s actions were the proximate cause of the injury; and (3) the monetary amount of the damages. Because the injured party does not need to prove the dog owner knew his/her dog was vicious, no punitive damages are available.
Ohio Supreme Court’s Holding
In determining that both remedies were available, the Ohio Supreme Court interpreted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 Warner v. Wolfe holding, which allowed a suit under the “statute or at common law.” The Ohio Supreme Court held the “or” did not require an injured party to chose which law he/she would bring a suit under but rather allowed an injured party to bring a suit under both.
In further support, the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision referenced the text of R.C. 955.28, which did not indicate an injured party could only bring a suit under either the common law or statutory law.
The Ohio Supreme Court worried if injured parties were forced to pick between the two causes of action some injured parties would not receive compensation for their sustained injuries because he/she would file the case under the common law and lose.
Therefore, The Ohio Supreme Court interpreted the Warner decision and R.C. 955.28 as eliminating the “one free bite” problem by allowing injured parties to always recover his/her medical expenses without proving the dog owner knew the dog was vicious. Conclusively, an injury party will always receive monetary compensation for his/her medical expenses under Ohio’s statutory law but only receive punitive damages if the injured party can prove the dog owner knew the dog was vicious under the common law.
The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed with Justice O’Donnell that juries would be confused by the court’s holding because a judge could instruct the jury to award additional punitive damages if the jury found the dog owner knew his/her dog was vicious. Both common law and the statutory law allowed for the injured party to receive medical expenses, therefore, a party would not recover twice because the judge would either award damages based on the statutory or common law depending on if the jury determined the defendant had the requisite knowledge.
Justice O’Donnell dissented because in his opinion the Warner decision required injured parties to bring a suit either under the statute or at common law, but a party could not bring both suits. Choosing between the two would not have served as a barrier for injured parties because if the injured party could prove knowledge then he/she could recover both medical and punitive damages. In contrast, if the injured party could not prove knowledge then he/she would bring a statutory claim and recover medical expenses.
Under Justice O’Donnell’s theory, if an injured party brought a common law suit and lost the injured party would receive nothing and be barred from bringing a statutory claim for the same injury. However, this negative consequence was within the injured parties choice and necessary for courts to supply juries with simple instructions.
Justice O’Donnell argued that choosing between the two actions was necessary because juries would be confused if forced to apply two different rules to the same set of facts. He argued that jurors now have to ignore facts presented during trial that relate to the parties knowledge while applying statutory law, but then the jurors have to apply facts indicating the defendant knew the dog was vicious to the common law.
He argued the Warner decision removed this confusion and allowed juries to apply whichever law the injured party filed his/her action under.
If you or someone you love has been injured by a vicious dog, you have rights. Call Lawrence & Associates today for a free consultation to find out how you can recover. We are Working Hard for the Working Class, and we want to help you!