Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Restrain your duck -- or wind up in court

By Danny Cevallos
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2106 GMT (0506 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A woman is suing for more than $250,000 due to attack by a duck
  • Danny Cevallos: The case highlights the standards applied when animals cause harm
  • Domestic animals' owners must know of aggressiveness to be held "strictly liable," he says
  • Cevallos: In case of a wild animal, the owner is assumed to know of the danger

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos is a CNN legal analyst, criminal defense attorney and partner at Cevallos & Wong, practicing in Pennsylvania and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Follow him on Twitter @CevallosLaw. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A Washington woman is suing her mother's neighbor in Oregon for more than $250,000 to compensate her for pain, suffering and other damages she alleges were inflicted during a traumatic ambush ... by a duck.

Cynthia Ruddell, 62, was visiting her mother's property when, she alleges, a domesticated duck belonging to Lolita Rose attacked her without provocation. In her flight to escape the factious fowl, Ruddell says she fell to the ground, breaking a wrist and spraining an elbow and shoulder. The case and subsequent media reports have highlighted common misunderstandings about tort liability for animals.

Domestic animals: Every duck gets one free nip

Danny Cevallos
Danny Cevallos

In the Beaver State, the owner of a domestic animal is "strictly liable" for the harm caused by the animal as a result of its abnormally dangerous characteristics only if the person knows or has reason to know it is abnormally dangerous.

It's come to be known, somewhat inaccurately, as the "one bite" rule. It's not that every dog really gets one free bite. Instead, if your bichon frisé attacks the pizza delivery guy once, the law says you can no longer deny you don't "know" of Fluffy's dangerous propensities.

"Strict liability" can be thought of as automatic liability, and it's even better for plaintiffs than a theory of negligence. Negligence requires the plaintiff prove some actual wrongdoing or substandard behavior for a defendant to be liable. Strict liability is less common, but it's much better for plaintiffs, because it holds people criminally or civilly liable for the act itself, even if they meant no harm, and acted with the utmost care.

Cevallos: Hands off our data

For all domestic animals, an animal owner may also be liable for injuries under a theory of negligence. Negligence is failing to behave with the level of care that someone of ordinary prudence would have exercised under the same circumstances. Strict liability is automatic -- no matter how much care you took to prevent injury.

Wild animals: Wild owners, strict liability

For wild animals, the rule is different. Sonny Crockett had a pet alligator on "Miami Vice"; Mike Tyson famously spent his money on tigers that slept in his bed. If you're one of these special people who absolutely need a puma or a boa constrictor, know that you will be automatically, strictly liable for any harm to others. Wild animals have not been generally domesticated and are likely, unless restrained, to cause personal injury. In this case, the plaintiff concedes the duck is a domestic one, but interestingly enough, waterfowl actually run the gamut from harmless to "killer."

In the personal-injury world, cases are defined largely by an axis of two factors: liability (how bad or innocent defendant's behavior was) and damages (how badly the plaintiff was hurt). If the duck owner's behavior is deemed negligent, she will be on the hook for all injuries, even if the plaintiff has an "eggshell skull," or is unusually fragile. The Oregon duck attack case would likely be described in the world of plaintiffs' lawyers as "average liability, good damages."

News reports often give undue attention to the dollar amount demanded in a court-filed civil complaint. A complaint is the document that initiates a lawsuit when filed with the court.

Here's what news reports aren't telling you about these pleadings: Lawyers don't pay attention to the amount demanded in a complaint. It has little bearing on the ultimate value of a settlement or a jury award. In fact, in many jurisdictions, a complaint frequently won't demand any specific dollar amount.

On the other hand, if you are in Brooklyn or Queens, complaints routinely demand millions of dollars -- amounts that might seem outlandish in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

For the most part, the dollar amount alleged in the complaint serves only jurisdictional or administrative purposes. For example, for a federal court to have jurisdiction over most personal-injury cases, the plaintiff must demand more than $75,000. In other state courts, the amount demanded helps the court determine how to classify and route the case. Ask any veteran insurance defense attorney: He or she will tell you lawyers don't care about the demand for a precise amount of money. They care about the facts.

And that's how this case will play out. If the duck owner was negligent, or had knowledge of the dangerous nature of this duck, and the duck's behavior foreseeably caused the injuries, the owner will be liable for all those injuries. A broken wrist and an injured rotator cuff have real value as damages, and could actually be "worth" the amount claimed. But the final amount will be determined using tangible medical records and bills -- not by a fanciful number in a pleading.

The law of animal liability is about to become more relevant than ever, as we are increasingly a society that insists upon people bringing their pets with them everywhere: work, restaurants and airports. Soon public places will be full of service poodles, service parrots and service iguanas -- until we just won't care about confirming whether they are really even service animals.

It will happen gradually, but within a few years we won't even notice that we are seated at a fine restaurant next to a German shepherd. Don't believe me? Did you imagine 10 years ago that dogs would be wandering around in airports, using the Cinnabon stand as a fire hydrant? It's coming. Adorable or not, they are still animals, and they still bite, or quack, or attack. I suppose we'll have to learn to bite back.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT