Merely Owning Property Where a Dog Resides Is Insufficient To Make the Landowner the Dog Owner For Liability Purposes.

The plaintiff was injured in a dog attack while visiting a friend at a home/property that was owned, but not occupied, by the friend's father.  The friend lived in the home rent-free and her father knew that his daughter had dogs and had even disciplined them on a prior occasion.  The father could have told his daughter to not have dogs on the premises.  The trial court held that the father was strictly liable for the plaintiff's injuries because he was the statutory "owner" of the dogs as a "harborer" of the dogs under Wis. Stat. Sec. 174.001(5) which subjects an owner of a dog to strict liability and defines an "owner" as "any person who owns, harbors, or keeps a dog."  On appeal, the father asserted that he was not an "owner" because he did not have custody over or care for the dogs and did not personally reside in the home or on the property where the dogs resided.  However, the appellate court affirmed on basis that "harbor" in the statute meant to give lodging or to give shelter or refuge to a dog, and that the statute lacked the proprietary aspect of keeping a dog.  Because the father provided shelter and lodging for dogs as the owner of the property he had, therefore, "harbored" the dogs.  On further review, the state Supreme Court reversed.  The court held that simply being an owner of property where dogs reside does not make the property owner a n "owner" of the dogs under the statute.  Instead, the totality of the circumstances determines whether the property owner has exercised sufficient control over the property to be considered a "harborer" and, therefore, an owner of the dogs under the statute.  As such, the court's decision squares with the longstanding WI law that landlords are not liable for the actions of their tenant's dogs.  A dissenting judge believed that because the father financially subsidized his daughter, the father was a "harborer" of the dogs. The dissenting judge also pointed to the fact that the daughter was essentially "judgment proof" because of her lack of finances.  Augsberger v. Homestead Mutual Insurance Company, et al., No. 2012AP641, 2014 Wisc. LEXIS 953 (Wisc. Sup. Ct. Dec. 26, 2014), rev'g., 340 Wis. 2d 486, 838 N.W.2d 88 (2013).   

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