Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Restrain your duck -- or wind up in court

By Danny Cevallos
updated 5:06 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
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
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
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
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
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.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
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
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
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
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
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.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
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.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
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.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
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?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT