by Deidre Smallwood
CHARLESTON, SC – South Carolina’s strict liability dog bite statute is codified in S.C. Code § 47-3-110, which provides in relevant part:
If a person is bitten or otherwise attacked by a dog while the person is in a public place or is lawfully in a private place, including the property of the dog owner or person having the dog in the person’s care or keeping, the dog owner or person having the dog in the person’s care or keeping is liable for the damages suffered by the person bitten or otherwise attacked.
The statute provides that an owner or caretaker of a dog “is liable for the damages suffered by the person bitten or otherwise attacked [emphasis added].” However, the statute does not specifically provide for the recovery of punitive damages. Although the issue of whether a person can recover punitive damages under the strict liability dog bite statute would be one of first impression in South Carolina, our courts have addressed similar language in other strict liability statutes and found that the legislature did not intend for punitive damages to be awardable.
In Barnwell v. Barber-Colman Co., 301 S.C. 534 (1989), the South Carolina Supreme Court, on certified question from the South Carolina District Court, considered a claim where an injured party brought a strict liability action against a manufacturer for damage caused by equipment made by the manufacturer. At trial, the jury awarded the injured party both actual and punitive damages. The statute at issue in this case was S.C. Code § 15-73-10, which states that “[o]ne who sells any product in a defective condition unreasonably dangerous to the user or consumer or to his property is subject to liability for physical harm caused to the ultimate user or consumer, or to his property [emphasis added].” The South Carolina Supreme Court gave deference to the statutory language selected by our legislature and held that when a statute creates a cause of action, the statute determines what damages are recoverable. S.C. Code § 15-73-10 did not specifically provide that punitive damages are recoverable, just that the seller of a defective produce “is subject to liability for the physical harm caused.” The Court further noted that actual damages are intended to compensate a person for loss or injury sustained while punitive damages are intended to punish and deter wrongful conduct.
If we apply the same logic to the strict liability dog bite statute as the Court did in Barnwell v. Barber-Colman Co., a plaintiff should not be allowed to recover punitive damages under S.C. Code § 47-3-110. The statute only allows for the recovery of “damages suffered by the person bitten.” Punitive damages are intended to punish and deter wrongful conduct, so they are not “damages suffered by the person bitten.”
If a Plaintiff were to bring causes of action under both the strict liability dog bite statute and negligence, he or she could still potentially recover punitive damages under the negligence cause of action. However, if the Plaintiff is proceeding solely under S.C. Code § 47-3-110 and is seeking punitive damages, you can file a pre-trial motion for summary judgment as to punitive damages. If successful, this would limit the issues and evidence to be presented at trial, and more importantly, it would help limit your insured’s financial exposure if the jury determines that he or she is liable under the statute.