Police Dog Exception to the Tennessee Dog Bite Statute

When a Tenneseee state trooper was injured by a sheriff’s deputy’s police dog, his lawsuit against the owner of the dog was not statutorily precluded.

In Greenlee v. Sevier County, Tennessee, No. E2017-00942-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 26, 2018), plaintiff was a Tennessee State Trooper who had attempted to make a traffic stop and called for assistance when the suspect fled on foot. A Sevier County Sheriff’s Deputy was dispatched, along with his police dog. During the pursuit, the deputy and dog went under a house, and when the dog emerged first, he attacked and injured plaintiff.

Plaintiff brought suit under Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413, alleging that the County and deputy “failed in their duty t o keep [the dog] under reasonable control.” Defendant argued, however, that this scenario fell into one of the statutory exceptions:

(b) Subsection (a) shall not be construed to impose liability upon the owner of the dog if: (1) The dog is a police or military dog, the injury occurred during the course of the dog’s official duties and the person injured was a party to, a participant in or suspected of being a party to or participant in the act or conduct that prompted the police or military to utilize the services of the dog.

(Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413). The trial court agreed that this subsection applied and granted summary judgment to defendant, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The only issue here was whether the facts of this case fell within the police dog exception quoted above. Defendant argued that “the plain language of the statute does not limit party, participant, or suspected party or participant, to only those individuals suspected of committing a crime.” Plaintiff, on the other hand, asserted that “the act or conduct that prompted the need for services was the fleeing suspect, not his request for assistance, and that he was an innocent victim, not a participant.” Ultimately, the Court agreed with plaintiff, holding: “Our plain reading of the statute leads us to conclude that the legislature removed liability only for those engaged in the wrongdoing that prompted police intervention, not for others lawfully at the scene of the crime.” Summary judgment was accordingly reversed.

The Court of Appeals correctly interpreted and applied the statute at play in this case. Under the defendant’s proposed interpretation, police officers would have almost always been banned from bringing suit based on the actions of a police dog during a suspect chase.