Court to Decide Meaning of “Owner” in Dog Bite Case

The Wisconsin Supreme Court earlier this month heard oral arguments in a case deciding whether the defendant is an “owner” and thus liable for damages caused by a dog at the home he owned, but in which he did not live. The case is Augsburger v. Homestead Mut. Ins., 2012AP641.



The defendant owned a home in which he allowed his daughter and son-in-law live rent free. The defendant’s daughter and son-in-law owned two dogs when they moved in. They later acquired more dogs, which the defendant also allowed on the property.

The plaintiff, who was friends with the defendant’s daughter, visited the defendant’s home where the dogs were residing. When the plaintiff entered the property, a number of dogs attacked her leading to her injury.

The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against both the defendant as the owner of the property and his daughter, who owned the dogs and who lived on the property. The issue in the case was whether the defendant-owner of the property was liable for the injuries even though he neither owned the dogs nor lived on the property where the injuries occurred.


Court of Appeals Decision

The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was considered an “owner” of the dogs even though the dogs were not his and he did not live on the property. The court pointed to the definition of a dog “owner” under Wisconsin’s statute (Wis. Stat. § 174.001(5)). Under the statute, an “owner” is “any person who owns, harbors, or keeps a dog.”

The court determined that the defendant did not “own” or “keep” the dogs because the dogs were not his and he did not reside at the home. Instead, the court determined that the defendant “harbored” the dogs by affording his daughter’s dogs shelter and lodging at the home he owned.

The court noted that while “one may question the legislative policy behind defining ‘owner’ to include a person who merely harbors a dog or the manner in which case law has defined ‘harbor,’ we are bound by both.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision by the end of its term in July 2015.