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Premises Liability and Dangerous Animals; Perkins v. Fillio

This case arises from injuries a woman suffered while trying to care for a goat on another woman’s farm. It involves interesting questions around premises liability—so interesting that this is the second appeal we have reported on in this case. And while
the first dealt with whether a ram was a dangerous animal, this one deals with the law governing injuries to invitees.

Fillio owns an Indiana farm on which she keeps animals, including sheep. She splits her time between the farm and Florida.

In August 2016, Fillio was in Florida and left her home in Slate’s care (he was to feed and water the animals). While Fillio was gone, a female goat fell ill, and Slate contacted Perkins because Perkins had more experience with farm animals than Slate.

When Perkins arrived, she saw the goat in a pen with a sheep. Unbeknownst to Perkins, the sheep was a ram, an uncastrated male, which did not have horns. As Perkins and Slate tried to load the goat into a cart, the ram headbutted Perkins, knocking her to the ground and injuring her.

Perkins sued Fillio, and Fillio moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether the ram was a dangerous animal. The trial court granted that motion, Perkins appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, finding genuine issues of material fact on this issue.

On remand the case was tried to a jury. Prior to deliberations, the parties disputed the proper jury instruction: Perkins wanted one based on Model Instruction 1929, while Fillio wanted one based on Model Instruction 1932. Perkins also objected to an
instruction based on maintaining a proper lookout. The trial court used Fillio’s instructions, and the jury returned a defense verdict. Perkins appealed.

On appeal, the Court first addressed the jury instruction issues. Fillio’s instruction told the jury that Perkins needed to prove (1) that Fillio knew of an unreasonably dangerous condition; (2) that Fillio should have known that this condition would not be discovered by an invitee; and (3) that Fillio failed to use reasonable care. Perkins wanted the jury to be instructed that she needed to prove (1) that Fillio owned the property; (2) that Perkins was an invitee; (3) that Perkins was injured as a result of Fillio’s wrongful act; and (4) that Fillio failed to use reasonable care to protect Perkins. The Court found that in this case, there was not “a meaningful difference” between these instructions.

Landowners owe invitees a duty of reasonable care to protect them from injuries that result from conditions of the land and injuries that result from activities conducted on the land. MCJI 1929 adds two elements not present in MCJI 1932: (1) that the defendant knew the condition existed and created a danger to invitees; and (2) that the defendant should have recognized invitees would not protect themselves from the danger.

However, to hold a defendant liable for harm caused by the defendant’s animal, a plaintiff must prove one (or both) of the following: (1) a defendant’s knowledge that a particular animal has a propensity for violence or (2) a defendant’s ownership of a member of a class of animals that are known to have dangerous propensities, as the owner of such an animal is bound to have knowledge of that potential danger.

If the animal possesses dangerous propensities, the owner must take reasonable precautions to prevent the animal from causing harm. Therefore, Perkins was required to prove Fillio knew, or should have known, that her ram had a dangerous propensity and that someone on the property would not recognize that danger.

Given the lack of a practical difference between these instructions in this case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in giving Fillio’s instruction.

As for the lookout instruction, the Court acknowledged that this type of instruction arose in the motor-vehicle context, but that it was not confined there.

Just as a pedestrian should anticipate that cars may be traveling down a road, a person entering an animal pen should anticipate that the animals in the pen may behave aggressively toward an unfamiliar presence. Final Instruction #6 was warranted by the evidence and was an accurate statement of law, and Perkins has not demonstrated the trial court erred
by giving the instruction.

Given these conclusions, the Court affirmed the judgment for Fillio.

Lesson:
1. A trial court does not err in choosing one instruction over another if there is not a meaningful difference between those instructions in the context of a case.
2. An instruction on the duty to keep a lookout is not limited to motor vehicle cases and can be used in other cases when appropriate.
3. It is appropriate to give a lookout instruction in a case involving injuries suffered around strange animals on a farm