Knapton v. Monk

Knapton v. Monk, 2015 MT 111 (April 28, 2015) (Rice, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court properly granted summary judgment to the landlord on the negligence claim; and (2) whether the district court properly granted summary judgment to the landlord on the strict liability claim.

Short Answer: (1) Yes, and (2) yes.

Affirmed

Facts: Kimberlee Johnson owns a house that was leased by the Monks, and adjacent to Knaptons’ home. Minks owned several dogs of pit bull ancestry. Johnson lived in the residence until March 2011, left some personal belongings in a downstairs storage room, received mail at the house, inspected the premises a few times a month, and occasionally stayed overnight on a rollaway bed.

In July 2011, one of Monks’ dogs bit MK, one of the Knapton children, on Knaptons’ property. Daniel Monk was charged with four misdemeanors stemming from that incident. In October 2011, the same dog escaped again and bit EK, MK’s sister, in Knaptons’ yard. Daniel Monk pleaded nolo contender to six criminal charges arising from this incident.

Travis Knapton sued Monks and Johnson in July 2012. Monks failed to answer and default was entered against them.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Johnson moved for summary judgment, and the district court held a hearing. Knapton stipulated that there was no evidence in the record demonstrating Johnson knew the Monks’ dog had previously bitten any other person prior to the October 2011 attack on EK. The district court granted Johnson’s motion on the negligence claim, concluding Johnson did not know the Monks’ dogs were vicious, and on the strict liability claim because Knapton had not shown that mixed breed dogs with pit bull ancestry are inherently dangerous. Knapton appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) Knapton argues Johnson is liable under premises liability, and Johnson argues she is not liable under the law of injury by animal. The Court takes this opportunity to clarify that the two theories are distinct, and that the absence of liability under one theory does not necessarily preclude recovery under the other. Under the law of injury by animal, a plaintiff may recover only against the “keeper” of the domestic animal. Under premises liability, the issue is whether Johnson had “reason to know” of the dogs’ vicious propensities, which is different from whether Johnson “should have known.” Drawing all reasonable inferences in Knapton’s favor, the Court concludes Knapton failed to present sufficient evidence to meet this standard.

(2) Knapton urges the Court to adopt a new rule that could classify a tenant’s harboring of pit bulls an inherently dangerous activity, and hold landlords strictly liable for injuries caused by the dogs. Johnson stated in discovery responses that the Monks’ dogs were pit bull terrier mixes, and the district court rendered its decision on that premise. The burden of proof shifted to Knapton to raise a genuine issue of material fact that the dogs were purebred pit bulls, which he failed to do. Further, the Court cannot conclude that the record demonstrates purebred pit bulls are inherently vicious.