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Dog Owners Prevail in Supreme Court, Thanks to ZALaw!

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Call it a win for dog owners everywhere. Zupkus & Angell attorneys Kristi Lush and Erica Payne secured a victory for their client, a dog owner, in a landmark case of first impression in Colorado. A three-year legal battle culminated today with the Colorado Supreme Court’s unanimous verdict that, in the absence of a special relationship, a landowner whose dogs ran at his fence and barked at a pedestrian, who then ran into the street and was struck by a vehicle, owed no duty to the pedestrian. Oral argument was held on May 4, 2017 at South High School in Pueblo, Colorado as part of the Colorado Supreme Court’s Community Outreach Program.

The facts are as follows: The mother of a child sued the respondent, a dog owner. The child had become frightened when the respondent’s dogs rushed at respondent’s front-yard fence and, although not touched by the fenced-in dogs, ran into the street and was struck and injured by a passing van. The Supreme Court considered whether the respondent owed a duty of care to the petitioner. It determined that, as a matter of law, the respondent did not owe the child a duty of care. Because the negligence claim against the respondent was predicated on alleged nonfeasance (failure to act), and was thus distinguishable from cases in which a dangerous or vicious animal attacks and directly injures someone, the petitioner was required to plead a special relationship between himself and the respondent in order to establish the duty of care necessary to support his negligence claim. The petitioner did not, however, plead such a special relationship. Accordingly, the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously concluded that the respondent owed no duty of care to the petitioner.

The impact of this decision cannot be overstated: It sends a clear message that responsible dog ownership shall not be penalized, and it articulates a clear distinction between cases in which a special relationship exists between dog owner and plaintiff, and cases in which no such relationship exists. This case provides much-needed guidance for homeowners, dog owners, insurers, and potential plaintiffs on the limitations of liability in fright-based negligence actions. Because Colorado is one of the few states in the nation to have articulated this rule, it is very likely that other jurisdictions will look to this decision for guidance in similar situations.

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