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Is a Tennessee City Responsible When a Known Dangerous Pit Bull Attacks?


Every year thousands of Tennessee residents are injured by dog bites. Oftentimes, these injuries require serious–and expensive–medical attention. The legal question then becomes, Who can be held responsible in a personal injury action for such dog bites?

Court of Appeals: “Public Duty” Doctrine Shields Memphis from Liability

A recent decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals looked at the potential for municipal liability in such cases. The plaintiff in this case lives in Memphis. One day she went for a walk near her house when a pit bull broke free from its chain and “badly mauled” the plaintiff, according to court records. Local officials subsequently removed the animal from its owner and placed it under quarantine.

The plaintiff subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the City of Memphis, alleging it was liable for the damages she sustained in the attack. According to the lawsuit, the City “had actual prior notice of this dog’s vicious propensities” and failed to take action before it attacked the plaintiff. The City moved for summary judgment, arguing a legal principle known as the “public duty doctrine.” This is an old common-law rule that basically says a public employee is not liable for injuries caused by that employee’s “breach of a duty owed to the public at large.”

In response, the plaintiff argued that the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) superseded the public duty doctrine in this case. The GTLA is a statute that waives the immunity of the state and its public subdivisions–including the City of Memphis–from personal injury lawsuits arising from an employee’s “negligent act or omission” in performing a “discretionary function.”

The trial court agreed with the plaintiff that the City was not immune from her lawsuit under the GTLA. However, the court also agreed with the City that the public duty doctrine superseded the GTLA. On those grounds, the plaintiff’s lawsuit was barred, since she needed to show the City owed her some “special duty” above and beyond the general duty of care owed the public.

The plaintiff appealed. She maintained the Supreme Court’s precedent placing the public duty doctrine over the GTLA was incorrect. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals said “there is nothing this Court can do about it.” The appellate court has a “duty to abide higher court precedents.”

As for the application of the public duty doctrine to this case, the appeals court explained that there are several exceptions to the doctrine, such as situations where “officials, by their actions, affirmatively undertake to protect the plaintiff, and the plaintiff relies upon the undertaking.” The problem here is that Memphis officials never made any such specific undertaking towards the plaintiff. Indeed, the plaintiff’s lawsuit rested on the theory that “she was a foreseeable” victim of the pit bull. But there is no “foreseeability” exception to the public duty doctrine, the Court of Appeals said, so the trial judge was correct to throw out her lawsuit.

Speak with a Tennessee Personal Injury Lawyer Today

In any given accident, there may be a number of parties who share potential legal liability. A qualified Knoxville personal injury lawyer can review your case and help you decide which parties are at-fault. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, to schedule a free consultation with a member of our personal injury legal team today.




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