Dog bites and other animal-related injuries are quite common. According to Dog Law, there are more than 4.7 million dog bites each year. Of those, almost 800,000 are serious enough to warrant medical attention. As a result, specific laws exist in most jurisdictions that define the dog owner's liability for injuries caused by their pets.
In general, the dog owner is responsible for using reasonable care to ensure that the dog does not cause injury. How this is specifically determined, however, depends on the jurisdiction. Provided here are the most common types of dog bite laws, which may also cover other animal injuries.
In states or cities with dog-bite statutes, the owner is automatically liable for damages caused by his or her dog. It does not matter whether the owner knew the dog to be dangerous or whether the owner acted in a negligent manner. These statutes may include injuries other than bites, including cases in which the dog frightens someone into injuring himself. They may also apply to other animals as well.
However, dog-bite statutes are generally tempered. In most jurisdictions, dog-bite statutes do not apply if the victim provoked the dog. They also may not apply if the victim was trespassing. Additionally, some dog-bite statutes only apply to bites. The laws vary wildly between jurisdictions.
The theory behind one-bite laws is that dog owners have no way to know that their dogs may be dangerous until an incident occurs. The one-bite rule generally applies to injuries that are not covered by dog-bite laws, including injuries that result from being frightened by the dog.
Under a one-bite law, the dog does not have to have actually bitten someone in order for the owner to be placed on notice. If the dog growls at passersby, jumps on strangers or otherwise displays threatening behavior, this may be enough for the owner to be put on notice that the dog is dangerous.
The one-bite rule is extremely complicated in its execution. Much of its interpretation is left to the discretion of the courts.
In some jurisdictions, a dog owner may be liable for his dog's actions under the theory of negligence. If the owner's carelessness in handling or restraining the dog led to the dog's injuring someone, the owner may be responsible.
A common ground for a negligence claim is the owner's violation of a local law. If a dog is allowed to roam free in a jurisdiction with leash laws, for example, and the dog causes an injury, the owner may be held liable for that injury. However, violation of a law is not necessarily automatic grounds for a negligence claim. The facts of the case must be resolved in a court of law.
Dog Owner Defenses
If a dog owner is sued for an incident caused by his dog, he retains several possible legal defenses. Although the exact defenses available will vary by jurisdiction and the facts of the case, some of the more common defenses include:
If the dog was provoked, the owner is generally not liable. Provocation need not be malicious. Accidentally stepping on the dog's tail or attempting to hug a strange dog may be sufficient to prove provocation.
2. Voluntary Assumption of Risk.
If the victim voluntarily placed himself into the situation, he or she may be considered to have assumed the risk of injury. Ignoring a "Beware of Dog" sign and entering a dog's enclosure are common ways that a victim may assume risk.
Those who work with dogs, such as kennel keepers and groomers, are generally assumed to have voluntarily accepted the risk of injury. Taking on caretaking responsibilities, such as caring for a friend's dog during a vacation, may also count as voluntary assumption of risk.
In most jurisdictions, trespassing on the part of the victim is a legal defense. However, trespassing laws are not always simple. Unless there are fences and warning signs across the property, an implied invitation for salespeople and others to approach the front door may be assumed.
A child entering the fenced back yard generally constitutes trespassing, unless your jurisdiction has attractive nuisance laws. A dog, like a swimming pool, may be considered an attractive nuisance. In that case, the homeowner is responsible for securing the property to prevent injury to children.
The Bottom Line
Dog bite laws are extremely complicated and vary between jurisdictions. The best defense, of course, is for dog owners to take every precaution to avoid their dogs' injuring someone. Should an incident occur, however, there are several legal recourses open to the victim. Likewise, several legal defenses are available to the dog owner.
Questions & Answers: Dog Bites and Other Injuries from Animals