Dog Bite Injury Lawsuit Weighed by Maine Supreme Judicial Court

The outcome of a vicarious liability claim against an employer of a dog owner in a recent Maine dog bite injury lawsuit hinged on whether the employee was acting in the course and scope of employment at the time the dog attacked. The case, recently before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, was challenging because the employee and dog owner lived in the same place where he worked. Additionally, the dog owner’s employer was also the victim’s landlord.

The child dog bite injury happened at an apartment complex where the plaintiff and her son resided and for which the dog owner, who also lived on site, was responsible for maintenance.

Vicarious liability, per Maine Revised Statutes 29-A-1109, holds that employers can be responsible for the acts of their employees if they approved or had knowledge of the employee’s actions and either approved or retained benefits, proceeds, profits, or advantages from the acts. Relevant also in this case is Maine Revised Statutes 9-729-3961, which outlines reimbursement for damage done by animals, including dogs. It holds that when an animal causes damage to a person or property due to the negligence of the animal’s keeper or owner, that owner or keeper is liable in a civil action to the injured person for the damage, as long as the injured person wasn’t more at fault than the dog’s keeper or owner.

According to court records, the defendant in this case is the company whose sole owner is the plaintiff’s landlord and the dog owner’s employer. The defendant hired the dog owner to directly respond to emergencies or other problems arising at the rental site. The dog owner was responsible to show apartments to potential renters, review applications, contact references, deliver written leases to tenants, collect rent and security deposits, perform repairs, and conduct other maintenance jobs.

In this role, the dog owner did not have an outside office but instead lived and worked on the site. Residents could reach him either by phone or by knocking on his door. He had no set hours of employment and addressed needs as they arose.

On the day in question in September 2015, the dog owner’s girlfriend’s daughter invited the plaintiff’s 13-year-old son to use the swimming pool at the dog owner’s residence. At the time, the dog owner was at the residence, repairing a piece of furniture. While in the fenced-in backyard, the maintenance man’s dog, a pit bull, attacked the young teen, causing him serious injuries.

The plaintiff filed a dog bite lawsuit, alleging both the dog owner and his employer were liable for injuries. The complaint alleged the dog owner possessed a dangerous dog, negligently failed to warn of the dog, and failed to properly secure the dog. Furthermore, she asserted the dog’s owner was at all pertinent times an employee of the defendant company and was maintaining the property for the benefit of the company in the course of its business.

The employer thereafter filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the dog bite occurred in an area controlled by the dog owner, who was not acting in the scope of his employment at the time of the bite. Furthermore, he argued there was no evidence presented as to the dog’s propensity to be vicious. The court granted this motion. At a later hearing at which the dog’s owner did not appear, the court entered a judgment against him for $75,000 plus interests and costs.

The plaintiff appealed the summary judgment ruling against the employer/landlord. However, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed. The court held the mere fact of an employee being designated as “on-call” for work does not automatically place them within the scope of employment. Additionally, the child in this case entered the dog owner’s private backyard for purposes that were unrelated to the owner’s employment. Furthermore, there was no evidence presented that at the time of the bite, the dog owner was performing any work assigned by his employer or was engaged in conduct over which the employer had control. Had any of these elements been present, the outcome might have been different.

Contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights following a Maine dog bite injury.

Additional Resources:

Canney v. Strathglass Holdings LLC, April 6, 2017, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

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