With the popularity of dogs as pets, with almost half of the households in the U.S. owning dogs, a higher percentage than for any other pet, it's reasonable to conclude that very few dogs cause serious injury to people. Unfortunately, dog bites do occur, often with the owner protesting that the biting behavior was completely out of character for their pet.
Dog bite liability arose at common law, with the courts devising a rule under which a dog owner could be held liable for a dog bite if the owner knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous or vicious propensities. In the U.S., liability for dog bites has been modified by court decisions and legislation.
The common law rule for dog bites was that a dog owner could only be liable for a bite if the owner knew or should have known of the dogs dangerous or vicious propensities. It was under common law that the "one bite rule" emerged, the general rule that an owner cannot be liable for a dog's first bite, under the theory that until a dog actually bites somebody you can't reasonably know that it is likely to do so.
While case law, the foundation of common law, varies between states, there are some general exceptions to the one bite rule. For example the owner of a dog that is constantly growling, snapping, and straining at its leash in an effort to attack or bite other people will typically be deemed to be aware that it is potentially dangerous, even before it bites somebody. Similarly, a dog that has been trained to fight or attack others can be deemed dangerous, even though it has never before bitten a person.
Under a true strict liability law, the owner of a dog is liable for injuries caused by the dog without any further examination of the facts or circumstances of the dog attack. When strict liability applies, it is not necessary to prove any negligence by the owner in order to recover damages.
Strict liability laws are typically moderated by either requiring that the person bringing the claim prove that they were acting peacefully and lawfully at the time of the bite (i.e., lawfully on the premises where the bite occurred and not engaged in criminal activity) or specify a limited range of defenses (e.g., trespass, provocation) that the dog owner may raise.
Some state laws attempt to codify the common law, but make modifications to the law, potentially adding new elements or defenses, or increasing the contexts in which the dog owner may be held liable. Some states allow a person bitten by a dog to make a claim under either a dog bite statute or common law, the statute being deemed to create an additional cause of action as opposed to preempting common law theories of liability.
As dog bite laws can vary dramatically by state, it is very important to research the laws of a specific state when analyzing a dog bite injury claim.
Although most dog injury claims are brought against the owner of the dog, sometimes another person will be accused of sharing liability for the attack. Possible examples include,
Landlords - A landlord may be alleged to have known that a tenant possessed a potentially dangerous dog, and to have failed to have taken appropriate action to protect the safety of visitors, passersby or other tenants.
Host Families - A family that is allowing the dog to live or stay with them, whether as a social guest or as a long-term guest, and whether or not the dog's owner is also staying on their property, may face liability based upon their alleged awareness of the dog's actual or potential dangerousness, and their failure to take appropriate steps to protect the safety of others.
Care Providers - People caring for dogs, such as dog sitters and dog walkers, can be liable based upon their negligence in hosting the dog, and also if they lose control of the animal while it is in their care.
People who care for animals belonging to others, who take those animals into public places, or who have dogs staying in their homes or on their properties, should make sure that they have appropriate insurance coverage to protect them from liability for any injuries caused by the dog.
Landlords who allow pets should include in their leases a state-specific clause describing any limits on the size or number of dogs allowed in a rental property, requiring renters insurance that covers any injuries caused by the dog, allows the landlord to compel that the dog be removed from the premises in the event that it engages in violent or aggressive behavior, and to the maximum extent possible limits the landlord's exposure in the event of an injury.
Although state law may limit the availability of defenses to dog bites, the following defenses are commonly allowed:
- Provocation - The dog owner argues that the dog was provoked into biting. Provocation does not necessarily involve intent. For example, a small child could be deemed to have provoked a bite by running up to a dog and trying to hug it, or approaching newborn puppies without regard for their protective mother, even though the child had no sense that his approach or actions would be interpreted by the dog as anything but an expression of affection.
- Trespass - The person claiming injury as a result of a dog bite may be required to prove that he was lawfully on the premises where the dog bite occurred in order to recover damages. Proof of lawful presence is often a required element of a dog bite claim made under a strict liability statute.
- Criminal Activity - If the person who was bitten by the dog was committing a crime against its owner, that fact may be available as a defense to an injury claim.
- Assumption of Risk - Under assumption of risk doctrine a person expressly accepts the possibility of injury, or is deemed to have accepted that risk by virtue of their statements or actions. Certain individuals may be deemed to have accepted the risk that the dog might bite them in the course of their activities. For example, the staff of a veterinary clinic may be deemed to have assumed the risk of injury from an animal that they are examining or treating.
- Police and Military Dogs - Dogs that are actively performing tasks for the police or military will normally not be covered by dog bite laws. For example, if a dog chases and catches a felon who is fleeing from the police, that person is likely barred from bringing a claim against the police for injuries suffered as a result of being subdued by the dog.
In some states, a person claiming to have been injured by a dog may have to prove that these defenses do not apply. That is, a person bitten by the dog must prove that they were lawfully on the premises where the bite occurred and that they were not committing a crime. When that type of requirement is imposed those claims are no longer technically defenses, but are part of the injured person's case in chief.
As the laws of each state vary significantly, if you are facing a dog bite claim you should promptly consult your homeowners or renters insurance company, or consult a defense lawyer, for help analyzing potential liability and defenses.
Although the most serious injuries caused by dogs usually involve biting, other injuries may occur. In most cases, these injuries occur when the dog escapes from his house or yard, or is otherwise allowed to run without being restrained by a leash. Common examples include:
Knocking somebody down - Some dogs, and some breeds of dogs, express their interest in people or their joy in meeting new people by jumping onto the person. When this occurs, there is a chance that the person will be knocked down and suffer an injury as a result of falling.
Causing Somebody to Fall from a Bicycle - Although bicyclists may fear being bitten by a dog, the far more likely injury is for the dog to run in front of the bicycle and to be hit by its front wheel, causing the bicycle to fall or flip. In some jurisdictions, a dog's unexpected barking or charging at a bicyclist might support a negligence action if the bicyclist is startled and falls, even if the dog is restrained.
Causing a Motor Vehicle Accident - Motorists who stop or swerve to avoid striking a dog can get into collisions with other dogs. Motorcyclists are particularly vulnerable, as if they strike the dog there is a substantial chance that they will be knocked off of their motorcycles, but swerving also creates serious risk of falling or getting into an accident.
Attacks on Animals or Livestock - Particularly when allowed to run free, dogs may get into fights with other dogs, or may attack other pets or livestock.
In most states, dog bite statutes do not apply to injuries caused by a dog that do not involve a bite. In this type of context, common law negligence principles will typically apply, with the person who was injured by the dog arguing that its owner was negligent, and that the dog was not properly controlled by its owner as the result of that negligence, with the injury being a foreseeable result of the lack of control asserted over the dog. Some states have statutes that impose liability for injury to livestock that may apply to dog attacks on other animals.
The best bet for both dog owners and people who encounter their dogs is to try to avoid having a bite or other injury occur. Dog bite prevention begins with the recognition that all dogs, even the sweetest and gentlest, can potentially bite.
- Dog owners should take care to properly confine and restrain their dogs.
- People who encounter a dog that is loose on the street need to consider that, even though it is probably a pet, it may be scared, agitated or potentially injured, and that any unknown dog may have been abused or neglected, and as a result more inclined to bite.
- Breaking up a dog fight is dangerous. Even when one of the dogs involved is yours, you put yourself at serious risk of being bitten when you try to break up a fight between dogs.
- If a dog has puppies, especially if the mother is nursing, she may aggressively defend her puppies against any perceived threat.
Children should be taught basic dog safety rules:
- They should never approach a dog without the permission of its owner.
- They should not to approach a dog suddenly,
- They should not try to hug or pet a sleeping dog,
- They should never take food away from a dog.
- Children need to understand not to tease dogs, and to understand what that means from the dog's perspective - that actions they believe are funny can be very provocative to a dog even if they mean no harm.
Children should always be supervised when they are around dogs.