Each year in the United States, millions of people sustain dog-related injuries, mostly from bites. Of course most dogs will never bite anyone, but if a bite does occur, and your dog is responsible, then you could be held liable under the law.
So what are the laws regarding dog bites? They actually vary quite a bit from state to state, although there is no such thing as a state in which you will never be held liable. Perhaps you have heard it said that every dog is entitled to one bite. What this means, essentially, is that if you had no reason to know that your dog was liable to bite, you get a pass for the first one. However, the “free bite rule” does not apply in all states. Some states will hold you liable regardless of what you know about your dog’s temperament.
Preventing Dog Bites
Of course, the best way to make sure that you never end up on the wrong side of the law is to prevent your dog from biting in the first place. And remember, no dog bites without a reason (see Help, My Dog Bit Me! for more on this topic). You might not know what the reason is, but trust me, there is one, and any dog can bite given the right circumstances. My friend Debbie’s beagle, Chuck, bit her one night – Debbie had gotten up in the dark to go to the bathroom, and she tripped over Chuck, who was asleep next to the bed, frightening him. Debbie now prevents bites by turning on a light when she needs to make an early-hours pit stop.
When it comes to the possibility of your dog biting a stranger, the best way to prevent this is to be sure that your dog is socialized at a young age – expose him to all kinds of people, and different situations.
Of course you should never allow your dog to run at large. Even in states that have the “one free bite” rule, you can still be held liable if your dog is not under your control.
Never, ever, leave a dog alone with a child. Even the gentlest dog can be provoked by ear-pulling and rough handling. If you allow your dog to roam in your fenced yard, make sure to install a child-proof gate. Nearly 50% of dog bites are inflicted on children under the age of 12.
It is also vital that you keep your dog’s vaccinations up to date. This is not technically a prevention issue, but the law in virtually every state provides for immediate euthanasia of your dog if he bites someone and does not have his rabies shots. There is no avenue of appeal; your dog is simply seized and put down.
Posting warning signs is also useful, but please resist the temptation to be “cute” about it. Those funny signs that show a silhouette of a Rottweiler, and the legend “I don’t dial 911” or “Guard Yorkie on Duty” are amusing, certainly, but they are not serious warnings. You are far better off to go with “Beware of Dog,” “Guard Dog on Duty,” or even simply “Dog on Premises.”
When Are You Liable, and to What Extent?
Out of those millions of dog bites that occur annually, about 800,000 require medical treatment. If your dog bites someone, there is a strong likelihood that you will be responsible for their medical bills, because you are required under the law to prevent your dog from harming anyone. You may also be on the hook for lost wages if the victim is unable to work, and if the victim decides to sue you, the law may also award damages for pain and suffering.
You will also be required to take measures to prevent further incidents. In very serious cases, this could mean that you will be ordered to euthanize your dog. And if you are deliberately reckless – by allowing a dog that you know to be aggressive to be unattended around children, for instance – you could be fined, or even jailed.
You will be held liable for any harm that your dog causes by biting if any of the following are true:
- You knew that the dog was likely to bite – however, you do not have to prove that you didn’t know; the victim has to prove that you did know
- The law in your state makes you liable regardless of what you knew or did not know about the dog’s nature
- You were negligent in controlling your dog
The One Bite Rule
As I previously mentioned, if you have no reason to think that your dog is likely to bite, then unless the dog is not under your control, you will get a pass on the first bite in many states. This does not, however, mean that a dog invariably gets one free bite. If your dog has ever snapped at a person, then you have reason to believe that your dog will bite, and you are on notice from that moment that if the dog does bite someone, you can be held liable under the law.
So, do you have any defense if you know that your dog might bite, and does? Yes, you do. If you can prove that the person who was bitten either knew that your dog was dangerous and approached him anyway, or if you can prove that the person provoked your dog, then you may escape liability.
States that allow a dog one free bite are:
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
So, if you live in one of these states, and you have seen no indication that your dog might bite someone, you are usually in the clear on the first bite. Do not assume, though, that snapping or lunging at people are the only indicators that a dog could bite. If your dog growls at everyone he meets, this could also imply that you had good reason to think he might eventually bite. It also doesn’t give you a pass on other behaviors that could cause injury. For instance, if you know that your dog has a tendency to jump up on people, if he is of a certain size then it is reasonable to think that he could knock someone down. If he does, you could be liable for any injuries that might occur.
Ultimately, the liability test is the same for any behavior that could cause injury – did you have reason to believe that such an injury could occur. Of course, if the worst happens and your dog does hurt someone, you can leave it up to a judge or a jury to determine your level of responsibility. Let’s talk about how some cases have played out in court.
1. Tessiero v. Conrad, 588 N.Y.S.2d 200 (App. Div. 1992)
This case dealt with the owner’s knowledge of previous bites. The court ruled that since the previous bite (actually, a mere nip) happened when the dog was a puppy, that was not a reasonable indicator of future behavior. The owner, therefore, was not held liable.
2. Slack v. Villari, 476 A.2d 227, cert. denied, 482 A.2d 502 (Md. 1984) and Collier v. Zambito, 1 N.Y.3d 444 (2004)
In these cases, dogs had the habit of barking at strangers, but had never threatened anyone. Barking in and of itself was ruled not to be a reasonable indication of future aggressive behavior.
3. Fontecchio v. Esposito, 485 N.Y.S.2d 113 (1985)
Growling and snapping at people, however, is a whole other thing. The court ruled in this case that such actions should cause an owner to suspect that the dog is capable of biting.
4. Nava v. McMillan, 123 Cal. App. 3d 262 (1981)
If your dog enjoys running along your fence, barking at pedestrians or cyclists, you could be held liable. In this case, a person claimed to have been so frightened that she ran into the street and was injured. The court ruled that no reasonable person would be so traumatized by the barking of a confined dog that running into the street would seem to be a good course of action, and the owner was found not to be liable for her injuries.
5. Fowler v. Helck, 278 Ky. 361 (1939)
What about disputes with other dogs? Are they indicators of aggression toward humans? In this case, the court found that dogs have their own ways of dealing with other dogs, and that the way they interact with other dogs is not a good predictor of their actions toward humans.
There have also been cases where dogs that have been trained for pit fighting have caused injury to humans. In virtually all of these cases, the courts have determined that the owner knew that the dog could be dangerous. Unfortunately, almost any dog that has been in a pit has been abused, and if not properly rehabilitated, will definitely be prone to biting out of fear.
6. Rucker v. Goldstein, 497 So. 2d 491 (Ala. 1986)
If your neighbors are constantly complaining to the Humane Society or to law enforcement that your dog is threatening, or has already bitten someone, then it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that you will be held liable when someone decides to take the matter to court. However, in this case, complaints by a neighbor to the effect that the dog was “a nuisance” were not considered to be sufficient to prove that the owner had reason to believe that his dog would bite.
7. Roupp v. Conrad, 287 A.D.2d 937, 731 N.Y.S.2d 545 (2001)
Most of the time, your dog’s breed will not factor into whether you should assume that he is dangerous. Some jurisdictions, though, define dogs as dangerous simply based on breed. You know that I consider this to be the height of foolishness, and I have talked about bans in The Real Truth About Pit Bulls and Should You Get a License for Your Dog. And the sad fact is that if your dog has been determined to be “dangerous,”he could be the sweetest boy in the world, and will still not get a pass on that first bite.
If you do end up in court, the result will most likely depend on the facts of the case, although the attitude of the judge or the jury members may also play a factor. And unfortunately, if you own a large dog of a certain breed, you may be judged more harshly than the owner of a yappy little ankle-biting toy poodle or Yorkshire Terrorist Terrier.
Protect Yourself and Your Dog
Going back to the idea of posting warning signs on your property, often people think that this will actually work against them if they have to go to court. After all, doesn’t posting a “Beware of Dog” sign mean that you think your dog is dangerous?
The truth is that these signs can actually prevent bites. You’re not saying that your dog is dangerous; you’re just saying ‘Hey, there’s a dog here, so proceed with caution.” And giving fair warning is a whole lot better than having to fight it out in court later on.
What are Your Defenses?
If your dog injures someone, you may avoid legal responsibility if you can prove that the injured person provoked the dog, knew he was dangerous and took the risk all the same, was trespassing or otherwise breaking the law, or was careless to an extent that their carelessness actually contributed to their injuries.
Now, keep in mind that you cannot necessarily use all of these defenses in every state. Following are some cases that relate to these defenses.
1. Brans v. Extrom, 266 Mich. App. 216 (2005), Reed v. Bowen, 503 So.2d 1265 (Fla. App. 1986) and Toney v. Bouthillier, 631 P.2d 557 (Ariz. App. 1981)
In Brans v. Extrom, the court ruled that acts like teasing or hitting a dog will mean that the owner is not liable if the dog bites. Reed v. Bowen and Toney v. Bouthillier ruled that if a dog bites a toddler that is grabbing him, even the prior behavior of the dog may not be a factor in finding the owner not liable.
Keep in mind, though, when considering these findings, that dog bites are like snowflakes – no two are alike. In the case of the toddlers, for instance, if the owner knows that the dog does not like children, and allows the dog to be unattended around children, the result could be very different.
I can’t say this often enough – do not allow your dog to be unattended around children. And if you live in Massachusetts or Connecticut, and your dog bites a child under the age of seven, the court will presume that the child did nothing to provoke the dog. If you want to use provocation as a defense, then you have to prove that the dog was provoked – the plaintiff does not have to prove lack of provocation.
2. Benton v. Aquarium, Inc., 489 A.2d 549 (Md. App. 1985)
In this case, the court ruled that the owner of a 95-pound Akita was not responsible for a house guest’s injuries. The guest had voluntarily entered a room, closed off from the rest of the house, that was occupied by the dog. He sued for $375,000 in damages for his injuries, but the court found that the owner was not at fault. Interestingly, this happened in Tennessee, which is not a “free bite” state.
3. Lundy v. Stuhr, 363 S.E.2d 343 (Ga. App. 1987)
If you make your living working with dogs, you are not likely to be favored by the court if you are bitten. In this case, a kennel attendant was bitten by a dog that had a sign on its cage clearly stating “will bite.” The court found the owner not responsible, having delivered fair warning. If you are operating a boarding kennel or a grooming parlor, you assume the risk of dog bites as part and parcel of your occupation. Implicitly, you accept the responsibility of controlling the dog, so if you are bitten, it’s on you.
4. Murphy v. Buonato, 696 A.2d 320 (Conn. 1997)
Even if you are looking after a friend’s dog, you may not be able to recover damages if you are bitten. This is because you are assumed to be in a position where you are reasonably expected to be able to control the dog. Connecticut does not have a “first bite” rule, but if you are deemed to be someone who should be able to control the dog, and you are bitten, the owner will not likely be held liable.
5. Kenney v. Barna, 341 N.W.2d 901 (Neb. 1983) and Alvin v. Simpson, 491 N.W.2d 604 (Mich. App. 1992)
In most states, if your dog bites a trespasser, you will not be held liable. However, in other states, unless you clearly post your property with “No Trespassing” signs, you will be considered to have invited anyone onto your property who is there for a lawful purpose.
In the absence of an implied invitation, persons on your property are trespassers. In Kenney v. Barna, for instance, a child who reached through the fence to pat a dog was determined to be a trespasser, and the dog’s owner was not held liable for the bite that she incurred. In Alvin v. Simpson, a Nebraska court ruled that a child who climbed a fence to get a lost ball was trespassing, and the dog’s owner was not liable for the bite.
What Constitutes an Invitation?
Generally speaking, if you can reasonably expect that someone will enter your property (a letter carrier, for example, or someone canvassing door to door for a good cause), they are not trespassers. They have an implied invitation – you do not have to say, specifically, “It is okay for you to be here.” In most states, you are also expected to know that children may from time to time wander into your yard, and should not be considered trespassers. In these cases, you are obligated under the law to prevent people from being injured by your dog.Consider the following case in which an implied invitation to the property made all the difference in the outcome of the court case.
6. Jones v. Manhart, 585 P.2d 1250 (Ariz. 1978).
In the case of Jones v. Manhart, a woman who was employed taking surveys walked onto a property where a sign clearly warned, “Trespassers Will Be Eaten.” She was invited into the home, where the dog jumped on her and bit her. It is not surprising that the Arizona court ruled that she was there with the consent of the dog’s owner, and she was awarded damages. The court utterly rejected the supposed warning on the “cutesy” sign. So, as I said before, don’t put up funny signs. Put up signs that actually mean something, and offer a real warning, even if you don’t think your dog is dangerous.
The Final Word
You have a duty to ensure that your dog does not bite without provocation. Under the laws of most states, you will not be held liable for a bite if the person who was bitten was breaking the law, was careless, or in some other way contributed to their injury. However, if you know that your dog is likely to bite, and he does, you could have the full force of the law come down on you. So make sure that you socialize your dog properly, never leave him alone with children, and take reasonable measures to ensure that he does not have the opportunity to run loose. If you don’t, you could be fined, or even jailed, and in the worst possible scenario, the law could require your dog to be euthanized.