10-26-23

COLORFUL STORIES OF VEXATIOUS ANIMALS FROM ALLIGATORS AND GEESE TO EGG SUCKING DOGS AS REFLECTED IN JUDICIAL DECISIONS

By:  Robert A. Biggs, III

The deep south has produced a wealth of notable authors.  Mississippi is no exception.  This state has produced William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Willie Morris, Tennessee Williams and John Grisham, to name but a few.  All excelled in the art of storytelling about life in the South.

The art of storytelling has its basic roots around Celtic campfires and has transcended generations to display itself prominently southern culture. 

Literary expression likewise permeates the written Mississippi legal opinions which can supply one with many hours of pleasurable reading.  Mississippi’s largely rural, agrarian society has provided a wide variety of uniquely interesting legal decisions.  Countless times during my forty-seven years of law practice, the phrase “you just can’t make this stuff up” has been expressed between myself and other lawyer colleagues to describe the unique human sagas which have been played out in a courtroom. 

Mississippi jurists have contributed greatly to literary expression by transforming real life experiences into colorful, ofttimes witty legal opinions. 

Mississippi’s small towns, farms, and woodlands teaming with wildlife and domestic animals, have given rise to notable legal controversies.  In turn, these disputes have led to notable legal precedents which have given various jurists the poetic license to display their literary talents and common sense wisdom in the application of the law related to animals.  These decisions, which come from the four corners of the state and all points in between, are far too numerous to comprehensively review in this article.  I have chosen to write about four such decisions to illustrate wisdom, wit and noteworthy penmanship of the writers of these legal decisions. 

The first of these illustrative decisions was handed down by the Honorable Virgil Alexis Griffith, Justice of the Supreme Court of Mississippi, in 1941, the subject matter of which concerned the shooting of an infamous “egg-sucking dog.” 

One mile outside the city limits of Greenwood, Mississippi stood the homestead of a landowner, the quiet enjoyment of which was invaded by a voracious “egg-sucking dog” of non-specified pedigree.  The mutt’s annoying persistence lasted a full three weeks before it was shot dead.  The court acknowledged that: “[The] dog took up his abode on the premises around defendant’s home, and made himself a nuisance by howling at night, chasing the turkeys and guineas owned by the defendant and by demeaning himself so as to frighten the children and their nurses. . . throughout the period of three weeks aforesaid, the dog sucked all the eggs which were laid by the turkeys and guineas on defendant’s premises and that his presence was of sufficient frequency, both day and night, and that none of the eggs were left until after the dog was killed.” 

Because everyone knows a dog is man’s best friend and companion, it was inevitable that the death of the dog at the hands of the justifiably annoyed landowner led to a lawsuit by the proud owner of the voracious dog.  In applying colorful expression of logic to the competing interest of the dog owner over the loss of his dog and the interests of the aggrieved landowner, Justice Griffith took judicial notice of the dilemma thus confronting the court when he reasoned: 

“It is a fact of common knowledge that when a dog has once acquired the habit of egg-sucking, there is no available way by which he may be broken of it, and there is not calculable limit to his appetite and indulgence of the habitual propensity, and generally he has a sufficient degree of intelligence that he will commit offense, and return to it every clear opportunity, in which a stealthy way that he can seldom be caught in the act itself.”  By application of common sense and logic, the court ultimately held that the killing of the dog was legally justifiable. 

In a second noteworthy decision, the Court of Appeals of Mississippi was confronted with the potential liability of a discount grocery owner in West Point, in which an aggressive four and one-half pound miniature dachshund puppy named Sophie was allegedly the cause of a serious hip injury to a female patron of the store, who was admittedly “terrified of dogs.”

The diminutive dog was routinely kept behind the counter of the store and unbeknownst to the unwary shopper.  While passing the counter and starting to proceed down a shopping aisle the shopper heard a dog bark and being immediately fearful for her safety, began running for her life.  The dog thereafter gave chase cornering the terrified woman in the back of the store and into a freezer, causing her fall and subsequent injuries.

The court ultimately exonerated the store owner of legal liability in applying logic when it reasoned:  “We must consider that Sophie was a four pound puppy at the time of the incident.  [The patron] admitted that when she heard the bark, she never turned to look at the dog.  Instead, she started running toward the back of the store.  She further admitted that she began to laugh when she finally saw that such a small dog had caused her to run into the freezer. . . .  We acknowledge [the patron’s] extreme fear of dogs.  However, we cannot say that it was reasonable for [the store owner] to anticipate that anyone, even someone with a great fear of dogs, would have such a reaction to Sophie’s presence in the store.” 

In so finding, the court upheld the precious innocence of a four and one-half pound puppy over the interests of a paranoid patron of the store. 

The third illustration involves the liability of a landowner for allegedly creating a nuisance by allowing an extreme proliferation of alligators on its lawfully owned property.  In this instance, the landowner was Exxon Mobile Corporation, who owned a waste-disposal site between Centerville and Woodville, Mississippi.  The Mississippi Game and Fish Commission had conducted a survey of the Exxon dump site and found 84 alligators, which reflected a “higher density” than which would be expected in the wild.  A husband and wife, who owned land adjacent to the site, sued Exxon Mobile for creating a nuisance in allowing alligators to proliferate on its adjacent thereby premises invading the quiet enjoyment of their property. 

The Supreme Court reasoned in holding that Exxon Mobile was not culpable and that no legal liability could be imposed on a “landowner for the acts of wild animals on their property that are not reduced to possession.” 

In a fourth illustrative decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court was confronted with the issue of liability of a landowner for personal injury of a visiting guest for personal injury caused by a gaggle of geese present on the premises.  The case arose from an incident occurring in Jackson County when a visitor at the home of the resident was attached and chased by a domestic goose causing her to fall and break her arm.  Of significance was the fact that a sign prominently displayed in the front yard of the house was a sign that read “Beware – Attack Geese.”  Upon entry into the yard, a large goose squawked at her and its neck reached out “as if it meant to bite her chest.”  The property owner also offered her visitor a bamboo stick and gave her special instructions on how to fend off the aggressive geese.  After entering the yard, the geese approached her, “squawking and hissing.”  “Frightened by the geese, and thinking the bamboo pole was useless, she threw it on the ground [and]. . . a goose reached out and nipped her in the crotch area.”  She thereafter fled, tripped and broke her arm giving rise to a suit for personal injury.  Prior to this case, traditional legal precedent required that in order to establish a case of liability, proof was required that a single animal had previously displayed a propensity for harm, that the landowner has knowledge of the dangerous propensity and failed to take steps to prevent harm to those visiting his premises. 

Judge Jim Kitchens colorfully writing for a majority, applied the following southern wit and logic reflective of man’s human experience:  “That is why [the landowner] may be held liable for her geese’s behavior without determining whether the particular goose that attacked [the victim] had exhibited a dangerous propensity in the past.  Whenever a pack of dogs, a herd of rodeo cattle, a swarm of honey bees, or a gaggle of geese – when analyzing the behavior of any grouping of nonhuman creatures with a dangerous propensity collectively, it is unnecessary and counterintuitive to analyze the unique history of each and every creature in the unit.  This has been a truth accepted by mankind since we drew on cave walls.  We fear not the wolf, but the pack; not the bee, but the swarm; not the buffalo, but the herd.  [The victim] feared not the goose, but the gaggle of the geese, not just one.” 

It necessarily follows that the evolution of legal precedent is often grounded in human experience and employment of human logic to a given experience.  Mississippi jurists are steeped in Mississippi history and culture.  The art of storytelling is often reflected in the written opinions of its jurists.


REFERENCES

1.         Hull v. Scruggs, 191 Miss. 66, 2 So2d 543 (Miss. 1941)

2.         Penny Pinchers v. Outlaw, 61 So.3d 245 (Miss. App. 2011)

3.         Christmas v. Exxon Mobil Corporation, 138 So.3d 123 (Miss. 2014)

4.         Olier v. Bailey, 164 So.3d 982 (Miss. 2015)