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Vol. 6, Iss. 3
March 22, 2017

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: Even Fancy Pants Show Dogs Bite People

Last month was the venerable Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City. Rumor, the German Shepard, won Best in how. Nigel, the Norwich Terrier, got robbed. Robbed I tell you. I was glued to the television – along with my two pooches, Barney and Sarah, right by my side. You can be sure there was some wagering going on, not to mention screaming and barking at the TV in an effort to influence the judges’ decisions.

But as much as dogs are one of life’s greatest pleasures, it can’t be ignored that they are not without some danger. Dogs sometimes bite people. Putting aside who’s at fault -- there could be a hundred reasons why a dog bites someone – bites are an inherent risk of being around dogs. There are millions of dogs in this country. So while bites are rare, and most dogs never hurt anyone, the sheer number of dogs necessarily leads to a lot of bites.


This, of course, causes a significant amount of litigation involving damages for injuries caused by dog bites. Based on my research, the earliest reported decision, involving litigation for injury caused by a dog bite, is Hall v. Hall, 3 Conn. 308 (1820). Connecticut should take credit for this source of pride and brag about it on its license plates. North Carolina’s plates announce “First in Flight.” Connecticut’s could read “First in Bite.”

But what about show dogs? Do they bite people? When I watch Westminster I always marvel at the dogs being poked and prodded by the judges and displaying no negative reaction. The poor pooch is practically getting a colonoscopy on national television and he just stands there, completely oblivious to it.

On one hand, it makes sense that show dogs would be low risk for biting. After all, they surely have great temperament, are used to being around a lot of people and other dogs and are accustomed to having peoples’ hands all over them. And, besides, dogs that use hair dryers and have their nails manicured can’t be that tough.

But, after a while, these pooches may start to lose their patience with all that priming and strangers petting their heads – not to mention speaking to them in baby talk. And when they reach the end of their leash they may decide to make their displeasure known to whomever the unlucky person is that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So I looked into it – using reported judicial decisions as the barometer. And it turns out that, just because show dogs probably get made fun of at the dog park, and have their lunch money stolen, some have a toughness behind their cucumber facemask. Consider these reported decisions involving show dogs that have not been worthy of any blue ribbons.

Splain v. Eastern Dog Club, 28 N.E.2d 450 (Mass. 1940) -- Plaintiff, attending a dog show to show his dog, was bitten by a competitor. (“Doubtless the defendant [dog club] should have foreseen and guarded against any probable harmful consequences of the presence of many dogs at the show of dogs [sic] being confined to benches or stalls for considerable periods and of exhibitors passing through aisles with dogs. But we think that, even in the circumstances of a dog show, it could not rightly have been found that the injury to the plaintiff in its general nature was a probable consequence of the failure of the defendant to take precautions, by providing attendants or otherwise, to prevent a dog on exhibition from remaining in the aisle for a period of five or ten minutes, when held by the person in charge of it by a chain or leash, or to guard against such dog--having no dangerous propensities known, or that should have been known--biting an exhibitor passing through the aisle with another dog.”).

Adkins v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 313 So. 2d 328 (La. Ct. App. 1975) - Serious injuries were sustained by a three year old who was bitten by a Weimaraner at a dog show. (“While it is true that the rules for the dog show were very loose and there was apparently no control to keep a vicious dog from being entered in the dog competition, we see no way that even if very strict rules had been adopted by the Fair that the dog in question would have been excluded from the show. Although he is a big dog, he appears to have been gentle and well trained.”).

Mieloch v. Country Mutual Ins. Co., 628 N.W.2d 439 (Wis. Ct. App. 2001) -- Kodak, an Akita, bit its professional trainer, causing injuries. (“[W]e conclude that because the [dog trainers] were already aware of the Meyer incident [Kodak snapping at another dog trainer four months earlier] prior to taking control of Kodak, the [owner] had no duty to warn them of that event. Further, we conclude that Kodak’s propensities towards other dogs are not material to Kodak’s propensities towards dog handlers, that the behavior of other dogs in linear kinship to Kodak cannot be imputed to Kodak [Kodak’s father and grandmother had bitten people], and that these contentions are not material to a duty to warn on the part of the [owner].”).

Burke v. Migday, 2001 WL 950915 (Mass. Super. Ct. Aug. 20, 2001) – A professional dog handler was bit in the face by Carlton, a Bullmastiff, after she opened his cage to say goodbye to him after a dog show. (The dog handler’s case against the dog owners for damages involved jurisdiction and choice of law issues.).

Wolf v. Bakert, 808 N.Y.S.2d 921 (Sup. Ct. 2005) – A twelve year old boy required fourteen stitches to the face after being bitten by Kirby, a Chow, at a dog show. (Trial needed to determine the facts that led to the incident. Dog owners alleged that Kirby was accustomed to being handled as he had participated in more than 240 shows. Owners alleged that Kirby was on a leash and lying down when the boy jumped on him.).

Tatman v. Space Coast Kennel Club, 27 So. 3d 108 (Fla. Ct. App. 2009) - A dog owner, in attendance at a dog show, was injured when bit by a competitor, Eli, an Akita, who was on a leash and being held by a professional dog trainer. The court held that the exculpatory clause on the entrance form for the injured person’s dog did not apply to preclude her claim.

In addition to the significant amount of litigation involving damages for injuries caused by dog bites, there is also a lot of litigation over the availability of insurance coverage for such incidents. Funny how that works.

Dog is man’s best friend
But when it bites a lawsuit will be penned
This can mean a lot to spend
So the dog will ask its insurer to defend
And also pay for the victim to mend
But what if Fido did expect or intend?

[This article was adopted from one that appeared in the February 12, 2014 issue of Coverage Opinions.]


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