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Boswell v. Steele

Supreme Court of Idaho

September 6, 2018

STEPHEN BOSWELL and KARENA BOSWELL, husband and wife, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
AMBER DAWN STEELE, and the Estate of MARY STEELE, Defendants-Respondents.

          Appeal from the District Court of the Sixth Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Bannock County, Hon. William H. Woodland, District Judge.

         The judgment of the district court is vacated and remanded for a new trial.

          Merrill & Merrill, Chtd., Pocatello, for Appellants. Kent A. Higgins argued.

          Cooper & Larsen, Pocatello, for Respondents. Reed W. Larsen argued.


         Stephen and Karena Boswell appeal from the judgment entered in favor of Amber Steele and the Estate of Mary Steele. The Boswells sought to recover damages for injuries suffered by Stephen after he was bitten by Amber's dog. Before the case was submitted to the jury, the district court ruled that all of the Boswells' claims sounded in negligence and so instructed the jury, rejecting the Boswells' proposed jury instructions on common law and statutory strict liability. The jury found that the Steeles were not negligent and the district court entered judgment consistent with that verdict. We vacate the judgment and remand for a new trial.


         The human actors in the events giving rise to this lawsuit are related by blood or marriage. Stephen Boswell is married to Karena Boswell. Karena is Mary Steele's daughter. Amber is Mary Steele's granddaughter and owns a Scottish terrier named Zoey. Amber and Zoey lived in Mary's home.

         On October 8, 2011, Stephen drove Mary home following a visit to the Boswell's home. Stephen went into the house with Mary. Zoey was confined in the kitchen behind a gate. Although Stephen had previously held and petted Zoey, on this day the dog barked and growled as Stephen neared. Stephen approached Zoey and lowered his closed hand. Zoey bit Stephen, removing some flesh from his hand.

         This was not Zoey's first offense. Previously, Zoey had bitten other people, drawing blood on two occasions. The Steeles had a "Beware of Dog" sign on the gate to their property and Zoey was confined most of the time.

         The Boswells filed their complaint on September 24, 2012, seeking damages under a number of different legal theories. After both parties filed motions for summary judgment, the district judge granted summary judgment in favor of the Steeles on October 30, 2013. The Boswells appealed and the Idaho Court of Appeals vacated the judgment and remanded, holding that the Boswells had presented sufficient evidence in support of their claims to survive summary judgment. Boswell v. Steele, 158 Idaho 554, 348 P.3d 497 (Ct. App. 2015) (Boswell I).

         On remand, the case proceeded to jury trial. Before trial, the Boswells dismissed their negligence claims and attempted to proceed only on their claims of strict liability and premises liability. The district court, however, held that the remaining claims sounded in negligence. At the conclusion of the trial, the district court gave jury instructions that focused on negligence and refused to give jury instructions regarding the Boswell's strict liability theories. The district court gave the jury a special verdict form. The first two questions asked if Amber or Mary were negligent in their conduct and instructed the jury to simply sign the verdict form if it found that neither was negligent. Following deliberations, the jury returned a verdict finding that the Steeles were not negligent.

         The Boswells timely appealed. The appeal was originally assigned to the Court of Appeals, which ruled in their favor in an unreported decision. This Court then granted the Steeles' petition for review.


         "While this Court gives serious consideration to the views of the Idaho Court of Appeals when considering a case on review from that court, it reviews the district court's decision directly." State v. Hill, 161 Idaho 444, 447, 387 P.3d 112, 115 (2016) (quoting State v. Watkins, 148 Idaho 418, 420, 224 P.3d 485, 487 (2009)).

         "The propriety of jury instructions is a question of law over which this Court exercises free review." Mackay v. Four Rivers Packing Co., 151 Idaho 388, 391, 257 P.3d 755, 758 (2011). "A requested jury instruction need not be given if it is either an erroneous statement of the law, adequately covered by other instructions, or not supported by the facts of the case." Ballard v. Kerr, 160 Idaho 674, 702, 378 P.3d 464, 492 (2016) (quoting Puckett v. Verska, 144 Idaho 161, 167, 158 P.3d 937, 943 (2007)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Boswells advance two main arguments on appeal. First, the Boswells assert that the district court erred when it found that all of their claims sounded in negligence, leading it to refuse to give jury instructions regarding common law and statutory strict liability. Second, the Boswells contend that ...

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