Dog-bite case to proceed after COA reverses judgment for owners

A Brownsburg dog-bite case must proceed to trial after the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the dog owners breached their duty to the man who was attacked and, thus, reversed summary judgment.

Tiffany Stafford and Colby Hayduk own a combined total of seven dogs, each of which is trained to stay within the confines of an invisible electric fence on Hayduk’s property. One day while Hayduk was at work, Michael Martin approached the property, uninvited, and was attacked by at least five of the dogs, resulting in several injuries.

Martin called Hayduk to ask if all of the dogs had their shots, but during the call Hayduk informed Martin there were “Beware of Dog” signs posted on the property. Martin then filed a complaint against both Hayduk and Stafford, alleging they had negligently failed to confine and control the dogs.

During the subsequent proceedings, Stafford admitted one of her dogs had previously bitten both her and her ex-husband. But Stafford and Hayduk also moved for summary judgment on the grounds that they did not owe Martin a duty other than that owed to a trespasser. They also argued they were not negligent by confining the dogs through an electric fence, and that the signs were posted at multiple locations on the property.

Martin responded by asserting there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the couple violated local ordinances by failing to properly confine the dogs and keeping more dogs on the premises than permitted. He also argued there was an issue of fact as to whether they breached a duty of reasonable care to Martin, and that the signs were covered by foliage.

The Hendricks Superior Court granted summary judgment to Hayduk and Stafford, prompting the appeal in Michael Martin v. Colby Hayduk and Tiffany Stafford, 32A01-1705-CT-974. Martin argued on appeal the trial court erred in the grant of summary judgment, and the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed and reversed in a Wednesday opinion.

While the appellate court determined Martin failed to prove the couple was negligent per se by violating local ordinances regarding dog ownership, a genuine issue of material fact regarding common law negligence remains, Judge Edward Najam wrote. He noted the standard in dog-bite cases is reasonable care, regardless of whether the victim was allowed to be on the land.

Najam then wrote the evidence showed a genuine issue of fact as to whether the dogs “had vicious or dangerous propensities,” considering Stafford’s admission that at least one of the dogs had bitten people in the past. He also noted that Martin testified to not seeing the “Beware of Dog” signs, creating a genuine issue as to whether had had actual knowledge of the dog’s presence on the property.

“The jury may conclude that a reasonable person would have seen the signs and, as such, that Martin’s assertion that he did not see the signs lacks credibility,” Najam wrote. “These questions of fact cannot be answered as a matter of law on summary judgment.”

The case was remanded for further proceedings.

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