Becker v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co

In Becker v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 141 Wis. 2d 804, 416 N.W.2d 906 (Ct. App. 1987), a dog broke out of its penned enclosure, darted onto a roadway, and caused an automobile driver to take evasive action, resulting in an accident. See id. at 807. The driver argued that the dog owner statute then in existence, Wis. Stat. 174.02(1)(a) (1983-84), established strict liability on the dog owner, subject only to the defense of comparative negligence. The statute at issue in Becker provided, in part: "The owner of a dog may be liable for the full amount of damages caused by the dog injuring or causing injury to a person, livestock or property." Wis. Stat. 174.02(1)(a) (1983-84). In interpreting the statute, the Becker court considered how the language of the statute had changed over time. See Becker, 141 Wis. 2d at 813. The Becker court concluded that the statute imposed strict liability on dog owners, but that an owner's liability was nevertheless subject to comparative negligence principles. See Becker, 141 Wis. 2d at 815. The dog owner nevertheless urged the Becker court to "carve out an exception to this strict liability statute for instances involving 'innocent acts' of a dog." Id. at 816. The owner asserted that the absence of an exception would "lead to absurd and unreasonable results in certain hypothetical cases." Id. at 817. Interestingly, the owner posited that under a "no exception" strict liability approach, "an owner would be liable to a person who trips over a sleeping dog." Id. The court, without deciding whether liability would attach under the sleeping dog hypothetical, stated that the "harshness of result in certain extreme situations is a social price sometimes paid for the perceived benefits of the strict liability policy." Id.