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Betty Ruth Wood et al v. Harold Williams

August 29, 2012

BETTY RUTH WOOD ET AL., PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
HAROLD WILLIAMS, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT.



(Super. Ct. No. 145421)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hull , J.

Wood v. Williams CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

John Wood (Wood) suffered a heart attack and died during an encounter with defendant Harold William's dog, after the dog approached Wood but never made physical contact with him.

Wood's family members, plaintiffs Betty Ruth Wood, Kim A. Wood, Todd B. Wood, and John L. Wood III (collectively, plaintiffs) filed a wrongful death complaint against defendant alleging negligence, violation of Butte County Ordinances (negligence per se), and bystander liability on behalf of Wood's wife. Plaintiffs appeal from a summary judgment entered in favor of defendant on their wrongful death claims. We affirm the judgment.

FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Defendant owned a 50-pound Shar Pei named Too who had no prior history of viciousness. Defendant was aware of the requirement that dogs be kept on a leash, and it was his practice to keep Too under control and not allow her to run loose.

On January 15, 2007, as defendant opened his door to let the housekeeper in, Too darted through his legs and escaped. With choke chain in hand, defendant got in his car and followed the dog, calling her name as he drove.

Wood was in the front yard of his home with his two small Chihuahuas. Too approached Wood and his dogs in a threatening manner, pacing back and forth approximately two to three feet in front of them. Wood threw pebbles at Too in a futile attempt to scare her away.

Wood and his wife were eventually able to get both of their dogs safely into the house. Too continued to pace several feet from Wood, and as Wood gathered more pebbles to throw at Too, Wood collapsed and died. An autopsy was never performed on Wood to determine the cause of death, but plaintiffs' expert, Peter Magnusson, M.D., opined that it was "more likely than not" the confrontation with Too caused Wood to have a heart attack, resulting in his death.

As to the complaint, defendant denied the allegations and filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing plaintiffs could not establish defendant owed them a duty of care under the factors set forth in Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108 (Rowland). More particularly, he claimed it was not reasonably foreseeable that allowing Too to run free would scare someone to death in the absence of any physical contact.

Plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing defendant's violation of county ordinances amounted to negligence per se. They also asserted it was unreasonable for defendant not to train Too, thus rendering the dog "incapable of responding to commands," or for him not to utilize the leash and collar to restrain Too when he opened the door for the housekeeper given Too's propensity to escape. They further argued defendant was negligent in failing to stop the confrontation when he arrived on the scene.

Applying the factors set forth in Rowland, the trial court found that although defendant had a duty to keep Too from running at large and harming other people, he had no duty to prevent Wood's death which, while tragic and "perhaps indirectly caused by the dog, was not the kind of harm which could reasonably have been foreseen by [defendant], either at the time he inadvertently allowed the dog to escape, or when he allegedly negligently failed to gain control of the dog in the decedent's yard." The court further found that moral blame on defendant's part was minimal, the connection between defendant's conduct and Wood's death was "difficult to establish, as a person generally does not have a heart attack from the stress of what ...


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