Like motor vehicle collisions, dog bite cases are not uncommon. Just as drivers are held responsible for the injuries they cause if they negligently cause a wreck, dog owners are held responsible if their dog bites someone due to the owner’s negligence or if the dog is known to be “vicious, dangerous or mischievous.” However, one of the more bizarre outcomes of a dog bite case was seen recently. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the case under a constitutional doctrine that most of the public has never heard of and even most lawyers would only vaguely remember from their first year of law school-the “political question” doctrine.
The case is called American K-9 Detection Services, LLC v. Freeman. In this case, the plaintiff, Latasha Freeman, a civilian employee of a private military contractor, was walking near a checkpoint in an Army forward operating base in northern Afghanistan when, she alleges, an explosive-detection dog owned by another contractor escaped from its pen and attacked her. In addition to filing and settling a claim against her employer under the Defense Base Act, a federal workers compensation statute, Freeman sued the two contractors who trained the dog and provided the dog’s handler, American K-9 Detection Services, LLC and Hill Country Dog Center, LLC.
American K-9 Detection Services argued that the Army, not it, was responsible for Freeman’s injuries because the Army had not properly designed the kennel, allowing the dog to escape. It then moved to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that the case presented a nonjusticiable “political question” because.
The political question doctrine holds that courts do not have jurisdiction to judicially review “those controversies which revolve around policy choices and value determinations constitutionally committed for resolution to” the legislative and executive branches. It is considered a function of separation of powers implicit in both the United States Constitution and Texas Constitution.
In a rare application of this doctrine to a personal injury case, Chief Justice Hecht, writing for the Court, held that “Army’s decisions about designing and constructing the kennels are unreviewable military decisions because they go to the equipping of the military, constitutionally committed to the federal political branches,” and that the American K-9 Detection Services’ defense presented a question that was “not a question a Texas court can answer.” Because of this “inextricable political question” which was raised by the defendant, not the plaintiff, the plaintiff’s claim had to be dismissed.
The Supreme Court also dismissed the case against Hill Country Dog Center, even though Hill Country did not join in the motion to dismiss, because it “favor[s] early resolution of justiciability issues[.”
Justices Eva Guzman and John Devine both authored dissents. Justice Guzman wrote that the majority’s decision “turns on a dangerous misapplication of the political question and runs counter to our plea-to-the-jurisdiction practice.” Both justices faulted the Supreme Court for failing to allow Freeman to put on evidence to dispute American K-9 Detection Services’ defense and for viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendants, rather than the plaintiff as is normally required when ruling on such a plea.
Any way you look at it, it is certainly one of the most unusual legal outcomes of a personal injury case in Texas this year.
If you or someone you know has been injured by the fault of another, contact an attorney at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner by calling 713-231-9360 or 1-888-229-5094 for your free consultation.