Big Changes in Tennessee Animal Law

Big Changes in Tennessee Animal Law

Animal Law Changes

January 1, 2016, was a big day in Tennessee.  It was the first day that the animal abuse registry went into effect.  Now in Tennessee, if an individual is convicted of animal abuse, his or her name will be added to the animal abuse registry.  Local shelters and rescues will be able to check the registry before adopting out a pet.  Although past violators will not be added, any convictions after January 1, 2016 should appear.  Seeing the correlation between animal abuse and child abuse, legislators took a big step in preventing both.

In the September 2015 case of Moore v. Gaut, the Tennessee Court of Appeals said “No” to what was termed “the Big Dog Exception” to well established case law concerning dog bites.  As has been established since the Missio v. Williams case of 1914, “the general rule…respecting the liability of owners or keepers of domestic animals for injuries to third persons is that the owner…is not liable for such injuries, unless the animal was accustomed to injure persons, or had an inclination to do so, and the vicious disposition of the animal was known to the owner or keeper.”  the Missio Court further stated that “knowledge of the owner or keeper that [a] dog is vicious is sufficient to sustain liability, without showing that it had ever bitten any one.”  This contradicts the old adage that every owner gets “one bite for free”.  In the later case of Alex v. Armstrong, the Supreme Court stated that “a dog’s playfulness or mischievousness can be a “dangerous propensity” in addition to a “vicious” temperament (a rule that I believe should be applied to children as well as pets, but I digress).
Both parties admitted in the Moore case that the dog, a Great Dane, had never bitten anyone.  Plaintiff could show no evidence to the trial court that Defendant had any knowledge or notice of the dog’s “dangerous propensity”.  “As the trial court observed, all the evidence presented by Plaintiff tends to show that Defendant believed his dog was friendly, gentle, and jovial before the bite occurred.”  It is also important to note that the dog was located inside a fenced yard on his owner’s property at the time of the incident and it was the Plaintiff who approached the dog.
Plaintiff argued that the mere size of the dog should create a “big dog exception” to the well established notice requirement described above.  In his argument to the Court of Appeals, Plaintiff stated “it is common knowledge that Great Danes are an extraordinarily large breed” and he “submits that its size alone placed the Defendant on notice of any dangerous propensity.”  He further asserted that “Great Danes are a suspect class of dog” because the are “a large and naturally dangerous animal, based on size, weight, and strength.”  The Tennessee Court of Appeals wisely held “We, like the trial court, decline to craft an exception to the long and well established rules in dog bite cases, based solely on a dog’s size or breed.”
As an owner of 3 large dogs, one of which is a Great Dane, I say “Good Job!!!” to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.  If I may paraphrase the great modern day philosopher, Sir Mix-A-Lot, “I like Big Mutts, and I cannot lie!”

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