A Vicious Dog Attack Gave This Woman Severe PTSD. Should She Sue the Dogs’ Owners?
Should a sheep rancher pay a cyclist for injuries caused by canines that were protecting his flock?
Noma Bar for Reader's Digest
On July 9, 2008, Renee Legro was pedaling over the final hill in a mountain bike race in the White River National Forest near Vail, Colorado. She’d had a flat tire earlier in the competition and had been left behind by the other riders. After cresting the hill, she found herself on a road in the middle of a herd of sheep. Suddenly, two massive dogs pulled her down. The Great Pyrenees—guard dogs trained to protect flocks from predators—mauled Legro. Nearby campers heard her screams and scared the dogs away. Her injuries were severe, including a broken ankle and deep bite wounds, but the most debilitating damage was not so visible. Her psychiatrist said she exhibited the worst post-traumatic stress he’d seen outside of war veterans.
The dogs were euthanized. Their owner, rancher Samuel Robinson, was criminally convicted under the state’s “dangerous dog” law. He paid $500 to charity and served 500 hours of community service.
On April 20, 2011, Legro filed a civil suit in Eagle County District Court, suing Robinson and his wife, Cheri, for negligence under Colorado’s Dog Bite Law. The Robinsons filed for summary judgment, arguing that an exemption in the statute protected them because the Great Pyrenees were working as “predator control dog[s] on the property of or under the control of the dog’s owner.” Plus, the Robinsons contended, this case fell under the Premises Liability Act (PLA), which states that landowners are not liable if an attack occurs on their property. The court agreed with the ranchers.
Legro appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, arguing that the Dog Bite Law did apply because the Robinsons did not own or control the property where the attack occurred. Though the couple had a permit from the U.S. Forest Service that allowed them to graze sheep there in return for a small tax, it was public land. (The Vail Recreation District had a permit to use the same public land for the race that day.)
In his opening brief, Legro’s attorney, Trenton Ongert, said that the district court’s decision “allows [the Robinsons’] dogs to attack and maul innocent people on public lands with impunity … [giving them] an unfettered, unregulated ‘license to kill.’”
Should the Robinsons pay damages to bicyclist Renee Legro for injuries that were inflicted by their trained guard dogs? You be the judge.
On October 25, 2012, the appeals court ruled that the Robinsons were “landowners” under the PLA but were not protected by the Dog Bite Law, since a grazing permit didn’t afford them enough control of the property to have the “right to exclude persons from [it].” The ranchers took their case to the state’s supreme court, which was charged with deciding if the appeals court correctly interpreted the tricky phrase “predator control dog[s] on the property of or under the control of the dog’s owner.” Did it mean that the dogs were “under the control” of the owner or that the property was? The supreme court ruled that the phrase referred to the dogs and sent the case to trial court to determine if the ranchers had been in control of their canines.
Before it could go to trial, the district court dismissed Legro’s claim, classifying her under the PLA as a “trespasser” on the Robinsons’ land. Legro appealed one last time. Finally, on December 31, 2015, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in her favor. According to its decision, she was not a trespasser and the ranchers did not have a sufficient interest in the property to satisfy the Dog Bite Law exemption. Soon after, Legro received a $1 million policy settlement from the Robinsons’ insurance company. “The case may be over,” says her attorney, “but her injuries will be lifelong.”