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Update on the Evansville Dog Bite Case: Davis v. Animal Control — City of Evansville
Posted in Litigation

Should the City of Evansville have to pay for a child’s dog-bite?

The Indiana Supreme Court heard argument on March 30 and will provide the answer in an upcoming opinion. The six-year-old victim, Shawn Davis, was playing in the street with neighbor Jessica Bays when he attracted the attention of Romeo, a sixty-pound Rottweiler belonging to Thomas Minor. The dog attacked Shawn from behind while he was fleeing. Although Bays was able to kick the dog away, Shawn required hospitalization and follow-up therapy. Shawn’s mother argued that the City of Evansville ought to pay Shawn money for the attack because the Animal Control Department had failed to protect Shawn from the dog.

Six months prior, Animal Control received a report of a Rottweiler named “Romeo” biting a child. Bays also testified that she had called Animal Control several times to report an aggressive dog running free in the neighborhood. The dog’s owner, Minor, is not a party to the current case. A Vanderburgh county judge found that the City was immune from Shawn’s claim, but the Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered the lawsuit to go forward. In the Indiana Supreme Court, Shawn’s lawyer argued that a victory for the City would create “dramatically expansive immunity” in which government actors would almost never be liable for harms they caused. He argued that the City’s behavior should be judged on a “reasonable person” standard (like any private person) and that a jury should be allowed to make the final decision. The City’s attorney responded that the Indiana legislature had specifically passed a law making government actors immune from damages for failing to enforce the law.

The oral argument included some legal hair-splitting. For example, parties argued about whether capturing a vicious dog was “law enforcement” or mere “administrative procedure.” If it is enforcement, who is the law being “enforced” against? The dog-owner? The dog? Underneath the legal jargon, comments by the Indiana Justices pointed to fascinating questions with far-reaching consequences. When should taxpayers pay one person for another person’s private wrong-doing? Would a victory for Shawn mean more expensive lawsuits against the government? What if a police officer failed to pull-over a speeder on the highway—would the police department have to pay the victim of a car-wreck involving that speeder? Whatever the result of Shawn’s lawsuit, the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision is likely to become a new landmark in government immunity law.

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