The Minnesota State Patrol cannot be held liable under the state's dog bite statute for injuries sustained by an Owatonna car dealership employee after an unprovoked K-9 attack while she was servicing a squad vehicle, the state Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
In the 13-page opinion, the three-judge panel held that although the state's dog-bite statute holds owners liable for injures sustained in unprovoked dog attacks, the State Patrol has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued.
The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Cristina Berrier, an employee of the Owatonna Motor Co., a dealership that routinely services State Patrol vehicles. On March 15, 2019, a State Patrol officer stopped in with a K-9. Berrier claims the officer failed to maintain control of the dog, and it attacked her without provocation.
Her attorney Grant Borgen told the Star Tribune that they intend to petition the Supreme Court to hear the case. He said the ruling "screams out for further review" because the appellate court has left people with "uncertainty of the law."
"The decision creates a unique distinction where if a dog owned by the government bites you, liability will depend on whether it's a county or municipal dog, in which case the government's liable, and if it's a state dog, the government is not liable," Borgen said.
Berrier was seriously injured by the dog, Diesel, who Borgen said regularly hung out in the service bay area while the unnamed trooper brought his squad car in. Borgen said the trooper directed Berrier to put Diesel back in the squad car, and she followed his directive.
"She petted [Diesel] goodbye like she had done on occasions before that and the dog bit her," Borgen said. "This dog was not trained to attack; it was a trained to detect narcotics."
The bite on her hand required surgery to treat an infection, Borgen said.
Berrier sued in Steele County District Court, citing both ordinary negligence on the part of the trooper and also citing the state's dog-bite statute, which reads:
"If a dog, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is acting peaceably in any place where the person may lawfully be, the owner of the dog is liable in damages to the person so attacked or injured to the full amount of the injury sustained. The term 'owner' includes any person harboring or keeping a dog but the owner shall be primarily liable."
The Minnesota Supreme Court previously decided that an "owner" could mean "bodies politic," including municipalities.
The State Patrol moved to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that as a state agency, it has sovereign immunity and cannot be sued. District Judge Ross Leuning denied the motion to dismiss, concluding that the Legislature waived sovereign immunity for claims brought under the dog-bite statute.
The State Patrol appealed Leuning's order, and the Appeals Court sided with the agency. In the order, Judge Theodora Karin Gaïtas wrote that the language of the dog-bite statute is not "'so plain, clear and unmistakable as to leave no doubt' about the Legislature's intent to waive sovereign immunity."
"Thus, when a dog owned by a state agency attacks or injures any person, the state is immune from absolute liability," Gaïtas wrote.
The case now will be sent back to Steele County District Court, where it will proceed under Berrier's claims of ordinary negligence. A spokesman for the Minnesota Attorney General's office, which represented the State Patrol on appeal, referred questions to the agency, which did not respond to a message seeking comment.