Suing after ferocious puppy panic

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Personal injury law is big business. It is one of the most contentious areas of law, and often one of the trickiest. For example, if you injure yourself while fleeing a charging dog, can you sue? Whom can you sue? And do the details about the dog matter?

A recent case in Mississippi raised these exact questions. Lenetra Outlaw went shopping at her local Penny Pinchers discount grocery store in West Point, Miss., one day in August 2006. An otherwise pleasant shopping day took an unfortunate turn when Outlaw heard a sound that gripped her with fear and panic: The terrifying sound of a dog barking, and claws hitting the store's hard floors as a ferocious beast came charging down the aisle.

Outlaw, who was extremely afraid of dogs, ran down the aisle, turned, and sought refuge from her brutal foe by leaping on top of a freezer. The jump exacerbated a previously existing hip injury, prompting Outlaw to sue Penny Pinchers and Cindy Scott, the store manager who owned this vicious attack dog.

A Mississippi state court jury found for Outlaw and awarded her $130,000, finding Penny Pinchers 70 percent at fault and Scott 30 percent to blame. That seems simple enough, but consider this: The allegedly ferocious beast was really a 4-month-old Dachshund puppy -- a little wiener dog weighing just four pounds.

Scott, the store manager, had been bringing this adorable puppy (named Sophie) to work every day. The pleasant little doggie had never attacked anyone. Scott usually kept Sophie behind the counter -- not to protect customers, but so that no one would step on the little thing. Outlaw's injury, it seemed, was the sole result of her own overreaction.

In light of these facts, Penny Pinchers and Scott decided an appeal was in order. The issue facing the Mississippi Court of Appeals in Penny Pinchers v. Outlaw: Did the presence of the 4-month-old pooch create an unreasonably dangerous condition at Penny Pinchers that day?

The court noted that the Mississippi Supreme Court had held that dogs are not dangerous per se. The Magnolia's State's dog-loving supreme court held in Poy v. Grayson that to impose liability on a dog owner for personal injuries, a plaintiff must show the dog had a propensity for violence and that the owner knew it. And Sophie the wiener dog, that 4-month-old, four-pound bundle of love, had a clean record.

Citing the Mississippi Supreme Court's 1969 decision in General Tire & Rubber Co. v. Darnell, the court went on to hold that a premises does not have to be completely safe from any hazard -- only reasonably safe -- and that the plaintiff's own actions can be considered in determining liability.

"We acknowledge Outlaw's extreme fear of dogs," Judge Thomas Griffis wrote for the court in overturning the jury's verdict. "However, we cannot say that it was reasonable for Penny Pinchers to anticipate that anyone, even someone with a great fear of dogs, would have such a reaction to Sophie's presence in the store."

So Mississippi dog owners need not fear lawsuits over injuries people cause themselves by overreacting. On the other hand, if you suffer from extreme puppy panic, you might want to consider moving to another state.

David Horrigan is a Washington, D.C. lawyer, analyst at the 451 Group, and dditorial director at Courtweek.com. He can be reached at dhorrigan@courtweek.com.

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