“[I]n Idaho, all dogs, regardless of breed or size, are presumed to be harmless domestic animals.” Bright v. Maznik. While dogs themselves are presumed to be harmless, the law in a dog bite case is anything but. One dog bite can lead to multiple alternative causes of action, including negligence, negligence per se, and strict liability. It is common to see all three of these causes of action pled in one complaint, even if the law surrounding them is a bit confusing. The confusion in the law is evident from the fact that the leading case on dog bites in Idaho, Boswell v. Steele, is not just one case, but instead one reported case from the Idaho Supreme Court, one reported case from the Idaho Court of Appeals, and one unreported case. What makes the law even more confusing is local dog regulations, and whether they create independent causes of action.
HISTORICAL COMMON LAW DOG BITE CASES
When handling dog bite cases in Idaho, you start with McClain v. Lewiston Interstate Fair & Racing Ass’n, a 1909 case that appears to be the first recorded Idaho dog bite case. If you are familiar with the “one bite” doctrine—a common expression that a dog is entitled to “one bite” and after that his owner is liable for any future bites—McClain is about as close to such rule as you’re going to find in Idaho. However, the Idaho Supreme Court has recently explained that McClain does not stand for the “one bite” rule. Instead, McClain held:
If domestic animals, such as oxen and horses, injure anyone, in person or property, if they are rightfully in the place where they do the mischief, the owner of such animals is not liable for such injury, unless he knew that they were accustomed to do mischief. And in suits for such injuries, such knowledge must be alleged, and proved. For unless the owner knew that the beast was vicious, he is not liable. If the owner had such knowledge, he is liable.
This statement is confusing and appears to be more exception than rule. McClain goes on to set forth other exceptions and rules regarding when, where, and how liability arises from dog bites. It appears to create a mixture of negligence and strict liability, and detangling the rules is challenging.
Luckily, there are a number of recent dog bite cases that clarify these common law causes of action and discuss potential defenses. Of the numerous recent cases, the state of common law dog bite claims in Idaho is probably best encapsulated in the Boswell cases, including one statement that summarizes Idaho’s common law on the subject. According to this summary, it does not really matter whether the common law claim is called strict liability or negligence; instead, it is simply a dog bite claim with the elements as set forth in Boswell and the other cases.
STATUTORY STRICT LIABILITY IN DOG BITE CASES
Despite this recent spate of cases outlining Idaho’s common law on dog bites, it is not clear whether such cases continue to be good law. The Supreme Court noted in a footnote in Boswell, “[w]e observe that the Legislature has acted to supplant the common law theories of liability that we discuss in this opinion when it adopted Idaho Code section 25-2810 in 2016. 2016 Idaho Sess. L. Ch. 285, § 4, p. 786.” In other words, the common law on dog bites might be supplanted by statute.
As the Supreme Court noted, the legislature enacted Idaho Code § 25-2810(11) in 2016, creating a strict liability scheme for all dog bite cases, outlining when and how the strict liability applies and what defenses exist. Unfortunately, with the exception of the footnote in Boswell, none of the new cases indicates how common law dog bite cases interact with the statutory scheme, because all of the dog bites in those cases occurred before the statute was adopted. However, if taken at face value, the Boswell footnote disposes of all common law dog bite claims and replaces them all with Idaho Code § 25-2810(11).
Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other issues facing your company.