Wisconsin Dog Owner Liability for Injury

Wisconsin Stat. 174.02(1) provides that "the owner of a dog is liable for the full amount of damages caused by the dog injuring or causing injury to a person, domestic animal or property," and the statute allows for double damages if the owner of the dog "was notified or knew that the dog previously injured or caused injury to a person, domestic animal or property." See 174.02(1)(a) and (b). Section 174.02(1) has been interpreted to impose strict liability on a dog owner, "subject only to the defense of comparative negligence." See Becker v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 141 Wis. 2d 804, 808, 416 N.W.2d 906 (Ct. App. 1987). In Becker v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 141 Wis. 2d 804, 416 N.W.2d 906 (Ct. App. 1987), we interpreted a predecessor of the present Wis. Stat. 174.02(1) provided that a dog owner "may be liable" for injuries caused by the dog. See Becker, 141 Wis. 2d at 813. In Becker, we concluded that the history of the statute indicated that the legislature inserted this "may be liable" language "to clarify that comparative negligence principles applied to the strict liability provisions of the statute." Id. at 815. We also noted that the subsequent amendment of the statute to its present wording, which directly references the comparative negligence statute, makes this intent "even more" explicit. See id. at 818. Wis. Stat. 174.02(1) presents a question of statutory interpretation, which is a question of law that is also subject to our de novo review. See State v. Szulczewski, 216 Wis. 2d 495, 499, 574 N.W.2d 660 (1998). The goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain the intent of the legislature, and to discern this intent we look first to the plain language of the statute. See Anderson v. City of Milwaukee, 208 Wis. 2d 18, 25, 559 N.W.2d 563 (1997). If the plain language of the statute is clear, we look no further and simply apply the statute to the facts and circumstances before us. See Jungbluth v. Hometown, Inc., 201 Wis. 2d 320, 327, 548 N.W.2d 519 (1996).