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August 26 2006- Dog bites kennel worker, but owner not automatically liable

Kennel workers bitten by canines in their care cannot sue dog owners under a state law that automatically holds them liable for injuries by their pets, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices applied the so-called "veterinarian's rule" to kennel workers as a matter of public policy and said being bitten by a dog on the job is an inherent risk of working at a kennel.

Justice Marvin Baxter said the ruling would encourage owners to use licensed kennels without the threat of lawsuits "for conduct they are in no position to guard against or control once the dog is surrendered to the kennel for boarding."

Despite Baxter's tough language, the justices did not automatically rule out a dog-bite lawsuit from a kennel worker.

The case decided Monday concerned Mugsey, a 75-pound Staffordshire terrier, also known as a pit bull, that mauled Marta Priebe, a worker at the Arcata Animal Hospital boarding kennel in Humboldt County, in September 2000.

Priebe was about to take Mugsey for a walk when the dog turned on her, clenching her foot and ankle in its jaws. Several onlookers had to pull the dog off her. Priebe suffered from nerve injuries and required physical therapy. The dog was euthanized.

Priebe sued Russell Nelson under a state law automatically holding owners liable for damages for dog bites. A lower court said the woman could not sue under that statute because kennel workers assume the risk of being injured by dogs, as do veterinarians.

Her appeal resulted in a partial victory.

The ruling allows Priebe to sue Nelson for allegations that the dog had violent tendencies that were not disclosed to the kennel. Under that theory, the kennel might have taken precautions or even refused to board the animal.

Nelson's attorney, Benjamin Riley, said his client "clearly told the receptionist that he had a dog with aggressive tendencies."

Priebe's attorney, Ruel Walker, said the case was headed for trial.

"She was mauled severely by this dog. It took four people to haul the dog off of her," he said.

In dissent, Justice Joyce Kennard said the court was usurping the authority of the California Legislature by assigning the veterinarian's rule to kennel workers. The court, she wrote, has no authority "to impose limits on, or create exceptions to, liabilities that the Legislature has mandated by statute."


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