Defining ‘Dog Owner’ in Dog Bite Attack & Injury Actions

In Illinois, the Animal Control Act provides that “if a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself or herself in any place where he or she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the injury proximately caused thereby. (IL ST CH 510 § 5/16). While the statute fails to explicitly provide a specific meaning for many of these terms (i.e. peaceable conduct, provocation etc.), the term owner is defined by statute. Under the Act, an “owner” means:

“any person having a right of property in an animal, or who keeps or harbors an animal, or who has it in his care, or acts as its custodian, or who knowingly permits a dog to remain on any premises occupied by him or her.” (IL ST CH 510 § 5/2.16).

Given the statute’s expansive definition of ownership, a person need not actually ‘own’ a dog that causes injury or harm, as the word is commonly used, for purposes of recovering damages in a cause of action brought forth pursuant to the Illinois Animal Control Act. Let’s explore some examples, beginning with a recent Illinois Appellate Court case interpreted the meaning of “owner” under the act. In Cieslewicz v. Forest Pres. Dist. of Cook County , 2012 IL App (1st) 100801, the plaintiff sued the Forest Preserve when she was attacked by stray dog in the Dan Ryan Woods.

The issue in the case was whether the Forest Preserve can be considered an “owner” of the stray dogs as defined by the Act. The appellate court analyzed prior court decisions and found that the Forest Preserve cannot be considered an “owner” under the Act. The court held that “merely allowing an animal to be temporarily on one's premises” without any exercise of custody, care, or control of the dog does not make the Forest Preserve an “owner” under the Act. The court stated that the evidence failed to establish that the Forest Preserve “knowingly permitted the attack dogs to be on its property.”

Moreover, the court noted that multiple reports showed that the dogs were entering the Dan Ryan Woods from the east, which was not Forest Preserve’s property, which showed that the offending dogs were on the Forest Preserve’s property in a transient capacity. Further, the Act “requires more than the passive ownership of grazing lands” and the evidence in this case did not show that the Forest Preserve exercised any care, custody, or control over the offending dogs. The court concluded that the Forest Preserve was not an owner of the offending dogs as a matter of law.

Now, let’s compare the ruling in Cieslewicz, in which the court found the element of the defendant’s ownership had not been met, to cases in which the court did find the presence of ownership. Consider the following examples, in which the court concluded that the injured victim was the dog’s owner, therefore precluding recovery:

  • Owner and operator of dog boarding and grooming business who agreed to board dog for a fee, was attacked and seriously injured by dog that was under victim’s care and control.
    • See, Wilcoxen v. Paige, App. 3 Dist.1988, 124 Ill.Dec. 213, 174 Ill.App.3d541, 528 N.E.2d 1104.
  • Home care provider injured while walking employer’s dog as a favor.
    • See, Hassell v. Wenglinski, App. 1 Dist.1993, 183 Ill.Dec. 807, 243 Ill.App.3d 398, 612 N.E.2d 64, appeal denied 186 Ill.Dec. 381, 151 Ill.2d 563, 616 N.E.2d 334.
  • 10-year-old child who agreed to take care of neighbor’s dog, including feeding dog, providing water, and letting it into yard, during neighbors 25-day absence, and who was injured by dog during absence.
    • See, Docherty v. Sadler, App. 4 Dist.1997, 228 Ill.Dec. 460, 293 Ill.App.3d 892, 689 N.E.2d 332.

Note the distinction in the above-listed cases, in precluding recovery to a victim deemed to be the dog’s owner at the time of the incident, between those in which non-owner victim was injured by the dog. Had the dog attacked, bitten, injured, or harmed another, the issue of liability would be altogether different.

In addition, victims should also note, that while an action for damages may be precluded under the Illinois Animal Control Act, this is not to say that the victim has no other right to recovery. In some cases, the victim of a dog-related incident may recover under an alternative theory of liability, and it is not uncommon for multiple counts to be included within a single complaint. A seasoned attorney can identify issues of liability and compensatory sources, and appropriately address such issues in their initial pleadings.

In short, have your case evaluated; the circumstances of your particular incident can vary greatly, in terms of liability, from those in another. Consultation in all personal injury and wrongful death matters is offered FREE of charge, and representation is provided on a contingency basis, meaning that compensation for our services is dependent on you obtaining financial recovery. Contact Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. today at 773-516-4100, or by using our online form provided on this page.

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