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Alabama Supreme Court reverses $75,000 award to victim of dog attack in Montgomery

State Supreme Court

By Charmaine Little | May 20, 2019

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Legal Newsline) – The Supreme Court of Alabama recently reversed a $75,000 award granted by the Montgomery County Circuit Court to the victim of a three-dog attack.

Court filings in the May 10 opinion said Betty Hill sued Emma Armstrong and Michelle McKithen claiming negligence, wantonness, and premises liability after she suffered bites from three dogs from a property Armstrong rented to McKithen in Montgomery.

On the day of the dog attack, May 21, 2016, Hill was watering her plants when she saw the dogs, which Hill said she believes were pit bulls, barking at children near Armstrong’s house, which she was currently renting to a tenant, court filings said. 

Hill claimed she inadvertently drew the dogs’ attention when she yelled at the children, telling them to steer clear of the dogs. Hill claimed the dogs then ran toward her and attacked, causing injuries to her right hand and left elbow. She said she had to undergo surgery and physical therapy.

On the day of the trial, it first appeared Hill would win her case when Armstrong appeared to be a no-show. Armstrong then showed up 13 minutes after the trial started, court filings said. The trial court later awarded Hill $75,000 for damages. 

Armstrong then appealed, asking if the evidence Hill brought to trial was sufficient for the judgment against her, court filings said. 

The Alabama Supreme Court answered the question by reversing the judgment in favor of Hill and remanded the case with instructions for the trial court to enter a judgment in favor of Armstrong.

“Despite the high degree of deference accorded to the trial court’s factual findings, we can identify no evidence in the record to sustain the judgment entered against Armstrong on the basis of (1) negligence and/or wantonness or (2) premises liability,” the high court said.

As for negligence and/or wantonness, the court said Hill would have had to prove that Armstrong failed to fulfill a duty that Hill was entitled to. In Alabama, the owners are the only ones responsible for their dogs, not a landlord like Armstrong. Considering this, it was Hill’s responsibility to prove Armstrong had some type of ownership over the dogs, or that she at least kept them. Hill failed to do this in her claim, the court said.

During the lower court trial, Hill didn’t even provide proof that Armstrong ever had an interaction with the dogs, court filings said. While Hill said Armstrong was responsible because of premises liability, the dog attack actually happened on Hill’s property, not Armstrong’s. The Supreme Court reiterated, “Hill does not contend that she ever set foot on the Armstrong property.”

The Supreme Court of Alabama has never held a landlord responsible for a dog bite incident that happened on a property that the landlord doesn’t actually own.

“Hill’s premises-liability claim cannot survive without any evidence that Armstrong was aware of a dangerous condition of the Armstrong property,” the supreme court said.

Chief Justice Tom Parker and Justices Greg Shaw, Will Sellers and Sarah Stewart concurred in the opinion. Justices Michael Bolin, Tommy Bryan and Brad Mendheim concurred in the result. 

Justice Jay Mitchell concurred in part and dissented in part, stating, "Hill claims that, absent the trial court's instruction, she would have presented additional evidence of liability. Given the unique circumstances of this case, she should have that opportunity, either through a new trial or by other means."

Justice Alisa Kelli Wise concurred with Justice Mitchell. 

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