Arizona Court Of Appeals Defines “Keeper” Of A Dog

Arizona law imposes strict liability on dog owners for injuries and bites caused by their dog pursuant to A.R.S. §§ 11-1020 and 11-1025. Section 11-1020 states “injury to any person or damage to any property by a dog while at large shall be the full responsibility of the dog owner or person or persons responsible for the dog when (the) damages were inflicted.” Section 11-1025 states “the owner of a dog which bites a person when the person is in or on a public place or lawfully in or on a private place … is liable for damages suffered by the person bitten.”

In Spirlong v. Browne, No.1 CA-CV 12-0763 (2014), Defendant Browne rented two rooms in his home to Co-Defendant Mayes who was the owner of two dogs and brought both dogs with him when he moved into Browne’s home. Mayes was solely responsible for caring for the dogs.

On the day of the incident, after Defendant Browne left for work, Defendant Mayes and Browne’s live-in girlfriend were at home. At some point, Defendant Mayes asked Defendant Browne’s girlfriend, “Do you want me to leave Joop (the dog) out of his crate so he can keep you company?” Browne’s girlfriend responded, “Sure, yes.” Later, Browne’s girlfriend put Joop in the backyard. Later still, Joop escaped from the backyard and bit the plaintiffs’ son who was riding his bike on a nearby city street.

The plaintiffs alleged that, as a matter of law, Defendant Browne was the dog’s “statutory owner” and thus strictly liable for their son’s injuries pursuant to A.R.S. §§ 11-1020 and 11-1025. A “statutory owner” is defined as “any person keeping an animal other than livestock for more than six consecutive days.” A.R.S. § 11-1001(10). The parties disputed the meaning of the word “keeping”, with plaintiffs arguing “keeping” only required a person to “have” a dog in their home for a minimum of six days and Defendant Brown arguing “keeping” requires a person to have care, custody or control of the dog.

The Arizona Court of Appeals found the word “keeping” ambiguous and stated the word “keeping” had multiple common meanings. The American Heritage Dictionary 957 (4th ed., 2006) stated that in the context of ownership of an animal “keeping” meant “to manage, tend or have charge of.” Further, Black’s Law Dictionary 885 (8th ed. 2004) stated that a “keeper” is “one who has the care, custody, or management of something and who usually is legally responsible for it.” The Court stated that such definitions suggested a construction of “keeping” that requires a person to exercise care, custody or control over a dog instead of simply allowing a dog to stay in his or her home for six consecutive days, as the plaintiffs argued. In interpreting the Arizona dog bite statutes, the Court concluded that the legislature was attempting to distinguish between keeping an animal and harboring (or maintaining) an animal which occurs when a person simply provides a place for an animal to stay. In reaching it’s decision, the Arizona Court of Appeals cited cases from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin when it stated “we hold the definition of ‘keeping’ under the dog bite statutes requires a person to exercise care, custody or control of a dog. Whether a person has exercised sufficient care, custody or control to be a statutory owner of a dog will generally present an issue of fact and will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of the particular case.” Applying that reasoning to the facts of this case, the Court concluded that when “a person merely permits another individual who owns a dog to live on his or her property but does not include or treat the other individual as a member of the household, that person is not liable for injuries caused by the other individual’s dog.”

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Bradley W. Matthiesen

Bradley W. Matthiesen is an insurance trial lawyer and partner with the law firm of Matthiesen, Wickert & Lehrer, S.C. He is licensed to practice in Arizona and Wisconsin. He has been an insurance defense trial attorney for the past 40 years. He also serves as a mediator throughout the State of Wisconsin and Arizona.