We love dogs. As a society, we buy them, train them, love them, incorporate them into the family unit. But when a dog bites or causes physical injury to either a person or another animal, things can get complicated quickly. Injuries can be severe and to make matters worse, jurisdictions handle dog bite laws differently, making an already complicated issue even messier. In addition, dog bite law covers state laws, city ordinances, and county ordinances. And dog bite law will cover any animal that causes injury. If a pig bites, a goat butts, or a bull gores, you may face liability. When determining liability, you will need to have a clear understanding of how all of these play out in your jurisdiction.
One Bite Rule vs. Strict Liability
Some jurisdictions have a “one bite” rule. This way of handling liability is based on the concept of foreseeability in negligence. In these states, the dog owner cannot be put on notice that the dog may bite unless it either has bitten before, displayed sufficient aggressive behavior to been known to put a dog owner on constructive notice that the dog may bite, or if the breed itself is known to be aggressive. In essence, a dog gets “one free bite” before it is deemed to be foreseeable that the dog will bite again. In these cases, liability attaches when the dog owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous behavior.
Other jurisdictions follow what is known as strict liability for dog bites. If your dog bites and you own the dog, you will face liability absent certain other circumstances. In these states, liability attaches regardless of whether a dog owner had any foreknowledge of a dog’s dangerous behavior. The bite itself is sufficient for a finding of liability.
If you own the dog in a strict liability state, you will be found liable if the injured person was legally on the property (had permission, or permission is implied), and if the injured person did nothing to hurt or otherwise provoke the dog. So if a trespasser or a thief is in your property and gets bitten, that person would not be able to recover for their injuries.
There are some jurisdictions that mix both the “one bite” rule and strict liability.
In these mixed jurisdictions, a plaintiff may be able to recover medical bills for a bite, but must prove either that the dog is vicious or in some jurisdictions, that the dog was off-leash.
To make things even more complicated, some states limit damages. Some jurisdictions only allow what are known as “economic” damages. These damages are those that have a specific dollar amount attached to them, such as medical bills or lost wages. They do not include damages such as pain and suffering, or emotional distress. In addition among those jurisdictions that only allow economic damages, jurisdictions differ in terms of which economic damages are recoverable. Some only allow medical bills.
An animal owner has some defenses to dog bite liability. Provocation and contributory or comparative negligence are typical defenses and are often asserted together. Assumption of the risk is another defense often asserted. If you see the dog growl at you and decide to approach anyway, you assume the risk that the dog may bite you.
Provocation occurs when the injured party teases, hurts, bates, or otherwise riles or excites the animal enough that it bites or causes other injuries. This can be done willfully or negligently. Contributory negligence is a defense that asserts that the injured party acted in some way to contribute to their own injuries. Provocation can be a type of contributory negligence, but so can trespassing. Even reaching into the yard to pet the dog can be asserted as a defense under both of these theories.
Benefits of Strict Liability
The primary benefit of strict liability jurisdictions lies in the clarity surrounding liability. If a dog injures another, the injured party does not need to show that the owner knew about the dog’s propensities and failed to take appropriate steps to keep the injured party safe. Absent the presence of a defense, liability is assumed. This makes resolution and settlement of these cases swifter and more likely.
Dog bite law is a complex and multi-layered area of the law. If you are trying to sort out the law in your jurisdiction, you may want the help of an experienced attorney to understand the law in your case and how it affects liability and damages.