Interpreting Harry v Smith, 111 Nev. 528

Interpreting Harry v Smith, 111 Nev. 528

     I wrote this short summary simply to reinforce my, Eric Roy’s, own personal understanding of this case.  This particular Nevada Supreme court case sheds light on a few different issues.  Simply put, this is a dog bite case.  The landowners of a specific property allowed their grandson to stay and live on their property.  The grandson then allowed a romantic couple to stay in the same house along with the couple’s dogs.  One of these dogs was a pit-bull.  The pit bull eventually made its way outside of the house and jumped a three foot high fence that bowed to only two feet in the middle.  The pit-bull bit a neighbor child and the child’s parents sued the land owners.

     The landowners filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that they owed no duty to protect the bitten child.  The district court granted this motion for summary judgment finding no duty to protect.  The matter thus went up to the Nevada Supreme Court on appeal.  The landowners argued that they were not liable as landlords for the negligence of their tenants.  They cited Wright v. Schum, 105 Nev. 611, 781 P.2d 1142 (1989).  Wright v. Schum states that land owners’ liability for injuries occurring off the premises does not turn on their status as land owners.    

     On review, the Supreme Court first made clear that the district court may only enter a finding of summary judgment when no genuine issue of material fact remains and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  Given that standard, the court found that there were in fact material facts in dispute.  There were facts in dispute which could establish whether a landlord-tenant relationship did or did not exist.  The record contained conflicting evidence in this regard.  For example, the grandson only paid the landlords a small sum to stay at the property.  Additionally, there was evidence that the landlords allowed the grandson to stay on the property for the duel purpose of having the grandson maintain the property as well as to provide the grandson with an inexpensive place to live.  The court concluded that given this record there was a factual dispute and that this factual dispute is material given the fact that a landlord tenant finding would preclude liability against the landlords based solely on the negligent acts of the landlord’s tenants. 

     In addition to the conflicting evidence regarding whether the grandson and landowners had a landlord tenant relationship there was also a factual dispute as to whether the grandson’s guests, the couple with the dogs, who were staying on the premises were in fact tenants.  There was evidence in the record demonstrating that the grandson considered the couple to be temporary houseguests.  The record contained no evidence of any lease agreements or proof of rent payments from either the couple or from the grandson.  Given this conflicting evidence, the Nevada Supreme Court again determined that there were further material factual disputes which should have prevented a finding of summary judgment. 

     Even if there was no landlord tenant finding the appellants contended that the grandson was the agent of the landowners and thus the landowners assumed liability for the grandson’s negligence as a result of an agency relationship.  Here, the Supreme Court again found conflicting evidence in the record.  Thus the record contained genuine issues of material facts which preclude a finding of summary judgment.  The facts in dispute would essentially determine whether an agency relationship existed at the time of the incident.  If the trier of fact determined that an agency relationship did exist then liability could thus extend to the landowners.  Without an agency finding the landowners could not be found liable for the acts of the individuals living in the house.  Since the interpretation of the facts regarding this issue could ultimately be dispositive of the landowner’s liability, these facts are material.  As we know, a dispute as to material facts is sufficient to defeat a summary judgment finding. 

     With regard to an agency finding the disputed facts were as follows.  Evidence in the record indicated that one of the landowners authorized the grandson to sign a lease agreement on the landowner’s behalf.  Other evidence indicated that the landowner had authorized the grandson to allow the couple with the dog to stay at the home.  Evidence also existed demonstrating that one of the landowners had consented to allowing the grandson to stay on the property so as to maintain the property.  These facts are all relevant as to whether an agency relationship did or did not exist.  Given the evidence supporting the fact that the grandson was aware of the dog’s propensity to bite along with the grandson’s knowledge of the dilapidated fence a finding of agency could extend liability to the landowner.  Thus the Supreme Court determined that the district court incorrectly made a summary judgment finding in favor of the landlords.  Again, this is because those facts in controversy are relevant to agency which is ultimately a dispositive issue of the case. 

     This case thus reminds us that a district court cannot make a finding of summary judgment when material facts are at issue.  It is insufficient that there simply be facts in issue.  Those facts in issue must be dispositive to the case if they are to be material facts.  Here, the record indicated that facts existed which would be determinative as to the existence or non-existence of a landlord-tenant relationship which could ultimately absolve the landowners of liability.  There were also facts in the record which might demonstrate an agency relationship.  An agency relationship could extend liability to the landowners.  Given that these factual findings are pertinent to dispositive issues of the case the district court incorrectly made a summary judgment finding in favor of the landowners.