BUEHLER V. BOCANEGRA (IND. CT. APP. 2023): Dog Bite Liability in Indiana

In a recent legal case, the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in a dog bite lawsuit involving a mailman and landlords. The plaintiff, Michael Buehler, appealed the granting of summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Martin and Julie Bocanegra, arguing that the trial court made an error. However, the Indiana Court of Appeals determined that there was no error on the part of the trial court.

The Bocanegras purchased a duplex in Evansville from Richard and Vicki Smith in 2019. At the time of the purchase, the tenant, Rhonda Sapp, had a month-to-month lease that allowed her to have one small dog. During a pre-acquisition walk-through, Julie Bocanegra observed Sapp’s elderly terrier in the duplex.

On September 11th, 2020, while delivering mail, Buehler approached Sapp’s mailbox when she opened the front door. At that moment, a dog named Ford, a bully breed, rushed out, knocking Buehler down and biting him on the arm before Sapp could restrain the dog. In March 2021, Buehler filed a complaint against Sapp and the Bocanegras, claiming strict liability under the Indiana Dog Bite Statute and alleging negligence on the part of the Bocanegras for breaching their duty of reasonable care.

The Bocanegras filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that they were not the owners of the dog and had no knowledge of its presence in the duplex. They argued that the Dog Bite Statute did not apply to them and that Buehler failed to allege actual knowledge, which they contended was necessary. In response, Buehler argued that the Bocanegras met the statutory definition of owners and that there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding their knowledge of the dog residing in the duplex.

The trial court granted the Bocanegras’ motion for summary judgment in September 2022, finding no genuine issue of material fact and concluding that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Buehler appealed the decision, leading to the case being heard before the Indiana Court of Appeals.

The central law in this case was Indiana Code 15-20-1-3, commonly known as the “Dog Bite Statute.” This statute imposes strict liability on dog owners when their dogs bite individuals without provocation while they are lawfully engaged in peaceful activities. The court relied on the precedent set by the case of Fields v. Gaw, which clarified the legislative intent behind the Dog Bite Statute and the purpose of imposing strict liability on dog owners.

The Court of Appeals clarified that the Bocanegras could not be considered owners under the Dog Bite Statute. The mere existence of a landlord-tenant relationship did not automatically make the landlords owners. There was no evidence showing any interaction or contact between the landlords and the tenant’s dog, including providing shelter or refuge.

Regarding the Bocanegras’ knowledge and exercise of reasonable care, the court applied a two-part test for determining the duty of reasonable care in dog bite cases involving non-resident landlords. The Bocanegras provided evidence demonstrating a lack of knowledge about the dog’s dangerous propensities. Buehler failed to present evidence establishing a genuine issue of material fact regarding the landlords’ actual knowledge of the dog’s dangerous propensities.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of the Bocanegras. The court concluded that the Bocanegras were not owners under the Dog Bite Statute and that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding their knowledge or exercise of reasonable care. Therefore, the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

Understanding Dog Bite Liability in Indiana

In Indiana, dog bite victims have the right to seek compensation for their damages from the dog owner. However, the state follows the one-bite rule, which can affect the liability of dog owners in certain situations.

Under the one-bite rule, dog owners may be relieved of liability if they can prove that they had no knowledge of their dog’s violent or aggressive behavior. Essentially, the rule suggests that the owner should not be held responsible for the first bite, as they were unaware of their dog’s propensity to bite or attack.

There are ways to negate the one-bite rule and hold the dog owner accountable for the injuries caused by their dog. One approach is to demonstrate that the owner had prior knowledge of their dog’s aggressive tendencies. Witness testimonies can play a crucial role in establishing the dog’s history of aggression, such as previous bites or public fights with other dogs. If it can be proven that the owner knew about their dog’s aggressive behavior and failed to take appropriate action to prevent a bite, they can be held liable.

Proving negligence on the part of the dog owner is another effective way to seek compensation, regardless of the one-bite rule. The ability to establish negligence depends on the specific circumstances surrounding the dog bite incident. For example, if a dog bit someone in a leash-only area because the owner had the dog off-leash, it can be argued that the owner was negligent in disregarding the area’s laws. Similarly, if a dog entered someone’s property and bit them because the owner failed to secure their dog within their fence, it demonstrates negligence on the owner’s part. Consulting with a personal injury lawyer in Indianapolis can greatly assist in proving negligence by utilizing details from the dog attack.

In some cases, a dog owner may face criminal penalties for a dog bite incident. According to Indiana law, a dog owner can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor if the following conditions are met:

1. The owner recklessly, knowingly, or intentionally fails to take reasonable steps to restrain the dog.

2. The dog enters property other than the owner’s property.

3. The dog bites or attacks another person without provocation, resulting in bodily injury to that person.

If the injuries caused by the dog bite result in death, the owner can be convicted of a felony.

While the one-bite rule may provide some level of protection for dog owners, it does not completely absolve them of responsibility. By proving prior knowledge of aggression or establishing negligence, dog bite victims can still pursue compensation for their damages. Seeking legal assistance from an experienced personal injury lawyer is essential in navigating the complexities of dog bite cases and ensuring that the victim’s rights are protected.

If you or a loved one have been the victim of a dog bite or dog attack, contact the experienced attorneys at Hurst Limontes and we will be happy to review your case. We work on a contingency basis, meaning there is no cost to you unless we reach a settlement or jury verdict award on your behalf.

Call 317-636-0808 or email us for a FREE and confidential consultation.