Liability of Owner or Keeper of Dogs


Armstrong v. Hill, [Ms. 1170650, May 10, 2019] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2019). This per curiam decision (Parker, C.J., and Shaw, Sellers and Stewart, JJ., concur; Bolin, Bryan, Mendheim, JJ., concur in the result; Wise and Mitchell, JJ., concur in part and dissent in part) reverses a judgment of the Montgomery Circuit Court awarding plaintiff $75,000 in damages for injuries suffered when she was bitten by three dogs. Ms. *1-2.

The defendant and her counsel did not appear for trial, and the circuit court announced from the bench that a default would be entered and afforded the plaintiff an opportunity to put on evidence of damages. Ms. *2. Minutes later, the defendant entered the courtroom without her counsel and was afforded an opportunity to cross-examine the plaintiff. On cross-examination, the plaintiff admitted that she knew the defendant’s property was being rented, and that the tenant kept dogs there but “she did not know to whom the dogs belonged.” Ms. *5.

The Court first held that “the absence of an entry of default in the electronic docket in this case indicates that no default was entered into the SJIS. Because no entry of default preceded the judgment, we presume the judgment from which Armstrong appeals was a judgment on the merits.” Ms. *9-10.

On the merits, the Court first noted that:

Under Alabama law, only owners and keepers of dogs have a duty to prevent their dogs from biting others. Humphries v. Rice, 600 So. 2d 975, 976 (Ala. 1992). Therefore, to support a conclusion that Armstrong was negligent, there must be sufficient evidence that Armstrong owned or kept the dogs that attacked Hill. Hill does not claim that Armstrong owned the dogs. Accordingly, the only way Armstrong could be found liable for negligence is if she were found to be a “keeper” of the dogs.

Ms. *16.

“[D]espite the high degree of deference accorded to the trial court’s factual findings,” the Court could “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.” Ms. *15. The Court reversed and directed entry of judgment for the defendant.

Justice Mitchell’s dissent would have reversed the judgment for the plaintiff but remanded for a new trial because the plaintiff may have been induced to ignore the issue of liability by the trial court’s instruction to prove damages only. Ms. *21.

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