At large

The dictionary definitions of “at large” are broad and inclusive:

  • Miriam‑ Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 654 (10th ed.2001) defines “at large” as “free of restraint or confinement.”
  • Black’s Law Dictionary 122 (7th ed.1999) defines “at large” as “[f]ree; unrestrained; not under control.”
  • Furthermore, American Jurisprudence defines “running at large” as “strolling, without restraint or confinement, as wandering, roving and rambling at will without restraint.” 4 Am.Jur.2d Animals § 50 at 390 (1995).

An animal is always regarded as being “at large” when it is off its owner’s premises, without a leash, and without a person to control the animal, but statutes, ordinances and case law sometimes lead to unexpected conclusions when the animal is:

  • On the owner’s premises, but roaming over an easement for the public, or in an area that is not physically separated from the public such as an unfenced, residential front lawn.
  • In the owner’s car.
  • Off the owner’s premises, on a leash that is tied to an object, or that is held by a child or another person who is not capable of controlling the animal.
  • Off the owner’s premises, unleashed, but under voice command, or in the presence of any person whose personal presence and attention would reasonably control the conduct of the animal.
  • Off the owner’s premises, unleashed, without the presence of any person, but is doing so without the owner having “allowed,” “permitted,” or “suffered” the animal to do it, or without the negligence of the owner.

The term “at large” can be defined differently to produce different results under the circumstances above described. The modern animal control laws, however, use the most expansive definition, which includes an animal that is off the property of its owner, and unleashed.

“At large” laws are important to dog bite victims. The cause of action for negligence per se is one of the most important tool available to the injured person. However, this cause of action requires that the city or county have strong animal control laws, such as a leash law, a law prohibiting dogs from running at large, or an anti-trespass law pertaining to dogs. It is important that local governments pass such laws without including loopholes enabling dog owners to easily escape responsibility.

For example, a law prohibiting dogs from running at large or trespassing should not use the words “allow” or “permit.” The mere act of being at large or trespassing should create the liability, while the penalty can be tied to the owner’s knowledge or actions, as well as injuries caused by the dog while it is off the owner’s property. If the dog gets out and causes no injury, the result might be an infraction with a $25 fine, but if it gets out and causes severe bodily injury, the punishment should be a misdemeanor. The basis for imposing strict criminal liability is that it requires a high degree of vigilance on the part of the dog owner, which is what society deserves and now demands.

If a dog is unleashed and off the owner’s premises, an “at large” law also should not create an exception for a dog that is under “voice command” or, worse yet, “under the control of any person whose personal presence and attention would reasonably control the conduct of the animal.” (Statutes of Maine, tit. 7, sec. 3907.)

Court decisions

In Alex v. Armstrong, 215 Tenn. 276; 385 S.W.2d 110; 1964 Tenn. LEXIS 564 (1964), the court held:

Since Penny was free to come and go at will while Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong were away from home at their respective employments, we can only conclude that by permitting the dog this freedom of action the defendants allowed the dog to be “at large”.

In Dalton v. Dean, 175 Tenn. 620, 623, 136 S.W.2d 721, 722, the same court held:

“To be at large means to be free and unrestrained. A dog is quite generally obedient to its master and is not at large when accompanying or following its master, but under control.”

In Wright v. Clark, 50 Vt. 130, 134, the question was whether or not a dog hunting a fox with its master was running at large in violation of the statute. The Court held:

“Running at large is used in the statute in the sense of strolling without restraint or confinement, or wandering, roving, or rambling at will, unrestrained. Perhaps no precise abstract rule under the statute can be laid down, applicable to every case, as to the nature, character, and amount of restraint necessary to be exercised over a domestic animal.”

In People v. Noone, 173 Misc. 259, 17 N.Y.S.2d 524, 526, the Court held:

“A dog, loose and following the person in charge of him, through the streets of a town, at such a distance that the person could not exercise that control over the dog which would prevent mischief, was ‘going at large’.”

In 4 Am.Jur.2d, Animals, Section 42, Page 293, it is stated:

“‘Running at large,’ within the meaning of a statute or ordinance prohibiting animals from running at large, or inflicting penalty upon one who suffers animals to be at large, denotes animals wandering, roving, or rambling at will and unrestrained.”

The victim’s acquiescence in the violation of the statute might result in a finding of no liability, but this point was not decided. Alex v. Armstrong, 215 Tenn. 276; 385 S.W.2d 110; 1964 Tenn. LEXIS 564 (1964).

There may or may not be liability where an animal escaped from restraint without actual or constructive knowledge on the part of its owner that the animal was likely to escape and run at large. See Alex v. Armstrong, 215 Tenn. 276; 385 S.W.2d 110; 1964 Tenn. LEXIS 564 (1964).

Cases dealing with what is necessary to allow an animal to run at large are collected in 34 A.L.R.2d 1285, 1289.

The issue of whether or not the violation of this statute was a proximate cause of the accident and resulting injury to the plaintiffs was one for the jury. Alex v. Armstrong, 215 Tenn. 276; 385 S.W.2d 110; 1964 Tenn. LEXIS 564 (1964).

In a Rhode Island case, Johnston v. Poulin, 844 A.2d 707 (Rhode Isl. Sup. Ct., 2004), the court wrote the following review of “at large” law:

We begin our analysis with the dictionary definition of “at large.” Miriam‑ Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 654 (10th ed.2001) defines “at large” as “free of restraint or confinement.” Black’s Law Dictionary 122 (7th ed.1999) defines “at large” as “[f]ree; unrestrained; not under control.” Furthermore, American Jurisprudence defines “running at large” as “strolling, without restraint or confinement, as wandering, roving and rambling at will without restraint.” 4 Am.Jur.2d Animals § 50 at 390 (1995). It is clear from the various definitions that an indispensable element of the term “at large” is a lack of restraint, confinement, or control.

From the earliest times an owner of livestock was not bound to fence his close against an adjoining field, but was allowed to pasture his animals on unenclosed lands. However, “[i]t was the rule of the common law that the owner of domestic animals * * * was bound at his peril to keep them off the lands of other persons or respond in damages for their trespasses,” whether or not he was negligent. See McKee v. Trisler, 311 Ill. 536, 143 N.E. 69, 71 (Ill.1924).

Several sister jurisdictions have had occasion to consider the term “at large” in statutes similar to § 4-14-1. The Vermont Supreme Court affirmed that a jury instruction was correct in stating, “if the horse, after the defendant left it to go back home, was out of control of him and his son, and running about in the highway, at liberty to follow its own instincts and inclinations, and to go wherever it would, it was running at large * * *.” Russell v. Cone, 46 Vt. 600, 604 (1873).

The Michigan Supreme Court noted that the “term has been defined many times by the courts under similar statutes, and the rule is well settled that ‘running at large’ means ‘strolling without restraint or confinement; rambling at will.’ ” Ecklund v. Toner, 121 Mich. 687, 80 N.W. 791, 791 (Mich.1899). The Connecticut Supreme Court followed the same line of reasoning, stating, ” ‘at large’ signifies that the animals are suffered to roam about without a keeper and without restraint.” Dixon v. Lewis, 94 Conn. 548, 109 A. 809, 810 (Conn.1920).

The Wisconsin Supreme Court concluded that control of the animal was integral to the definition of at large. “An animal which is unattended and untethered in the street is as much at large when in front of its master’s premises as in any other part of the street.” Decker v. McSorley, 111 Wis. 91, 86 N.W. 554, 555 (Wis.1901). In construing an Ohio statute relating to cruelty to animals, its court of appeals stated, “[i]t is our opinion that a dog is at large when a vagrant, when it runs at will, when it is absolutely beyond control or call and is acting on his own initiative, and under such circumstances wherein there is no connection, physical or sympathetic, between the dog and the master.” Uebele v. State, 21 Ohio App. 459, 153 N.E. 215, 216 (Ohio Ct.App.1926).

In Groenhoff v. Whisler, 199 Iowa 754, 202 N.W. 587, 587 (Iowa 1925), the plaintiff took possession of a steer that escaped from the defendant’s property. On the third day of such possession, the steer allegedly killed the plaintiff’s bull. Id. While recognizing that the achievement of the steer was “perhaps never excelled in bovine annals,” the Iowa Supreme Court held that

“[a]fter the plaintiff took possession of the steer, he [the steer] was no longer running at large. The plaintiff rightfully assumed temporary control over him, and became charged with the same duty of reasonable care as any bailee. Reasonable care included reasonable control of the animal. The defendant was not in control of him.” Id.

The Kansas Supreme Court opined that a bull that broke into a feed lot containing fat cattle, causing one to die and approximately fifty head to fail to “eat properly or put on flesh,” was “not running at large when it was being driven along the road by its owner and his employee.” Bertram v. Burton, 129 Kan. 31, 281 P. 892, 893, 894 (Kan.1929). “To be at large means to be free and unrestrained. A dog is quite generally obedient to its master and is not at large when accompanying or following its master, but is under control.” Dalton v. Dean, 175 Tenn. 620, 136 S.W.2d 721, 722 (Tenn.1940).

The distinguishing factor in determining whether an animal is “at large” is the presence or absence of control. If an animal is roaming at will and free to follow its own instincts, it may be said to be “at large.” If, however, it is either physically restrained or subject to the moral authority of the person in charge, it is not “at large.” See Commonwealth v. Dow, 51 Mass. 382, 386 (1845) (dog, loose and following the person in charge of him at such a distance that the person could not exercise that control over the dog which would prevent mischief, was “going at large”).

Typical modern “at large” law

A typical, modern “at large” law is found in the Contra Costa (California) County Code:

416-4.402 Animals at large.

(a) No person owning, possessing, harboring, or controlling any animal shall allow such animal to be at large.

(b) As used in this section, “at large” means an animal which either:

(1) In the case of dogs, is not under effective restraint by a leash; or

(2) In the case of animals other than dogs or cats, is not in the immediate presence and under the effective control of such person; or

(3) Is tethered or leashed on any street, or other public place, not set aside for such tethering or leashing for a period of longer than fifteen minutes, or in such a way as to block a public walkway or thoroughfare; or

(4) Is pastured, tethered, tied, or otherwise present on private property or in any public building without the consent of the owner or occupant; or

(5) Is in any place or position with the capacity to injure persons or property; or

(6) Fights, bites, or causes harm to any other animal or person unless such animal or person has entered the private property owned by, or in the possession of the person owning or controlling the offending animal without permission when such property is properly fenced and posted as to the presence of the offending animal; or

(7) Is not on the private property owned by, or in the possession of, the person owning or controlling the animal and is not wearing a required license tag; or

(8) Is left at any place without provision for its care.

Provided, nevertheless, that a dog is not required to be under restraint by a leash when the dog has not strayed from and is upon private property owned by, or in the possession of, the person owning or controlling the dog.

(c) Exemptions. A working dog, performing acts such as herding under the control and supervision of owner/handler shall not be considered at large while performing his duties. A hunting, obedience, tracking or show dog shall not be considered at large while performing in the above capacities. Dogs being exercised under the control of their owners in public areas designated for animal exercise shall not be considered at large.

(d) Females in Heat. In the case of female dogs or cats in heat and for the purposes of Food and Agricultural Code Section 30954, “at large” means outside a house, vehicle, or other secure enclosure adequate to prevent unplanned male access.

(e) Animals in Vehicles.

(1) A dog or any other animal in or upon a vehicle is deemed to be upon the property of the operator of such vehicle. No dog or any other animal shall be transported on any public thoroughfare in any vehicle unless such dog or animal is totally enclosed within such vehicle, within a secured container carried upon such vehicle, or securely cross-tethered to such vehicle in such a way as to prevent a falling out of or off such vehicle, and to prevent injury to the animal.

(2) No dog or any other animal shall be left completely enclosed in a parked vehicle without adequate ventilation, or in such a way as to subject the animal to temperatures sufficiently above ambient to affect the animal’s health and welfare. (Ord. 80-97 § 2).