Dogs: Man’s Best Friend Or Unreasonably Dangerous Product?

According to a report from the Clinton Herald, a lawsuit has been filed against the Clinton (Iowa) Humane Society after a dog adopted from the agency bit a 15-month old child. The dog, which was possibly a pitbull-mix, was received by the Iowa Humane Society after it was saved from being euthanized at a Louisiana shelter.  The suit asserts product liability, negligence and breach of warranty claims against the Humane Society as well as a strict liability claims against the adopted dog parents, Kris and Ashley Greene.  The theory against the Humane Society is premised on the notion that the agency failed to warn the Greene’s of the risks of transitioning a dog from a shelter to a home and of a dog’s potential dangerous propensities. The plaintiff claims that the lack of instructions or warnings renders the dog not reasonably safe.

We here at Abnormal Use find this suit interesting to say the least. While dogs are technically property in the eyes of the law (in most jurisdictions), treating them as products for product liability purposes creates some significant problems. Most notably, unlike traditional products, dogs are living, breathing creatures capable of independent thinking and actions. When a product leaves the manufacturer, we know how it is supposed to “act.” When it does not act as it was intended, it is typically because of some defect (either in its manufacturing or its design). That’s product liability. On the other hand, dogs are all different.  No two dogs are the same either due to nature, nurture, or some combination of the two. We can never know for sure just how a dog is going to act in any situation. So how do we regulate whether a dog acted as intended?

To be fair, the case here is premised on a failure to warn, not that the dog was “defective” per se. We can certainly appreciate the need to disclose if a dog is known to have a checkered past or is otherwise prone to violence. But wouldn’t a simple negligence theory do the trick to protect against these types of harms?

No need to bring product liability principles into it.

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