In our ongoing series highlighting interesting personal injury jury verdicts in California, I found this case tried in downtown Los Angeles in June and recently reported (Thomas A. Pappas v. Union Pacific Railroad Company, Master Recovery Auto Insurance Auction, et.al Los Angeles Superior Court Case No. BC475219). The trial involved the following:
Facts of The Case: Plaintiff alleged that on January 8, 2010, he was working for Union Pacific Rail Co. As he was walking through the rail yard, two dogs from an adjacent property jumped the fence and began chasing the plaintiff causing him to run and jump onto an electrical box. In jumping up and down from the box, he alleges to have sustained injury including a lateral meniscus tear in his knee and a shoulder injury.
Contentions of the Plaintiff: Plaintiff alleged that defendant, “Master Recovery Auto”, owned the yard where the dogs were harbored and negligently allowed them to escape.
Arguments of the Defense: Master recovery argued that it did not own the dogs and that they were “strays;” that the fence over which the dogs jumped was on Union Pacific’s property and they had an obligation to fix it. They filed a cross-complaint against Union Pacific over this issue. Union Pacific argued that the fence was defective in any way (i.e. had an opening in it that needed repair).
Settlement Discussions: Plaintiff made a settlement demand of $500,000 and Union Pacific offered to pay $50,000 towards settlement. There was no mention of any offers being made by Master Recovery.
Result of the Trial: The jury awarded the plaintiff $600,071.32 as a gross award. They found Master Recovery to be 90 % at fault and Union Pacific 10% at fault. Because plaintiff was a UP employee rail worker, Union Pacific was only obligated to pay wages losses under the Federal Employer’s Liability Act (FELA).
Things I draw from this verdict in my perspective as a California personal injury attorney:
California actually has a “strict liability” rule (i.e. automatic liability even absent a showing of negligence) for injuries caused by dogs (see full discussion here). However, one requirement of the so-called California “dog bite statute” is proving that the defendant was the dog owner. Obviously, proving ownership of canines can be difficult, especially if they are not registered and are found wandering between two properties such as the case here. Nevertheless, arguing that the defendant had a duty to act reasonably and breached that duty causing injury to the plaintiff (i.e. a “negligence” theory of recovery) is still available with regard to animal attack cases even absent application of the “dog bite rule”. For the plaintiff in this case, it was important to have the jury apportion the majority of fault on the third party defendant rather than on his employer. Federal rail workers are restricted by statute on what they are able to recover against an employer by the FELA similar to the restrictions of workers compensation for work related injuries in general where there is no third party negligence. All in all, I would say this was a very positive result for the plaintiff in this case.