A JUDGE yesterday threw out a £160,000 damages claim by a woman who injured her knee when she was knocked over by a "boisterous" black labrador.
In a landmark case for dog owners, Lord Malcolm ruled Patricia Welsh was the victim of a "pure accident" and said the courts should not help to create a society "bent on litigation".
However, the judge also made it clear his ruling did not give owners "free rein" to let their dogs off the lead. The everyday task of taking the dog for a walk may never have been the same again had the ruling gone the other way.
Fresh concern over a rising compensation culture in Scotland was raised last month, when a motorist was ordered to pay 3,500 in compensation after nudging a taxi at a speed of less than five miles per hour.
Caroline Spencer, a passenger in the taxi, went to court to seek compensation after suffering whiplash in the low-speed accident in Edinburgh. Alana Baron, a lawyer herself, was ordered to pay up despite the accident not having left a mark on the other vehicle or "affecting the pursuer's life in any way".
Yesterday's case involved Ebony, Neil Brady's five-year-old labrador. He took the dog for a walk in a field near his home in Wellbank, Angus, in March 2005. It was a favourite haunt of dog owners, including Ms Welsh, 55, and her golden retriever, Cava. The court heard that Ebony and Cava had run together off the lead several times in the past. That day, however, Mrs Welsh, also of Wellbank, was knocked over by Ebony as the two dogs raced towards her. She sustained a dislocated knee, and required reconstructive surgery. The knee continued to "give way" and to cause pain, and Mrs Welsh had to give up her job as a lecturer in child care at Dundee College.
It was agreed in her damages claim against Mr Brady that, if she proved negligence by him, she would be awarded 160,000.
It was alleged that Mr Brady, a forestry officer for Dundee Council, should have kept Ebony on a lead because the dog did not always obey commands to return to him.
Ryan O'Meara, 31, a former professional dog trainer, who has appeared on television shows such as Dog Borstal and It's Me or the Dog, told the Court of Session in Edinburgh that if a dog was not "recall proof", it should be on a lead in a public place.
The court heard that Ebony was a large, lively and boisterous animal, though neither aggressive nor vicious.
Lord Malcolm said it had been "a pure accident" when Ebony collided with the woman while running free in a field, and that the dog's owner should not be held legally liable. The judge warned that the courts must not help to create a society "bent on litigation", while stressing that other owners in other situations could still be sued.
"For the avoidance of doubt, it should be understood that this decision does not give all dog owners free rein to let their dogs off the lead, whatever the circumstances, so long as there has been no previous evidence of vicious or dangerous behaviour," said Lord Malcolm.
ACCIDENT WAITING TO HAPPEN
THE United States is widely seen as having given birth to "compensation culture."
Millions of dollars have been awarded as the phenomenon has grown over the last 20 years, partly thanks to the popular legal slogan: "Where there's blame, there's a claim."
There has also been an upsurge in cases in the UK, with many legal firms promising to take on cases on a "no win, no fee" basis. However many claims fail because the injured party cannot prove negligence by another.
There have been more than 2,000 claims of negligence filed against NHS hospitals in Scotland over the past five years.
Earlier this year it emerged that Edinburgh city council had paid out almost 3 million in compensation as a result of cracked roads and pavements.