Dog owners in every state are generally liable when their animal bites someone else, unless the victim provoked the dog or acted with reckless disregard for his or her own safety around the dog. But in many states, trespass is a defense to a dog bite claim. This means that, in those jurisdictions a dog owner's liability for bites will not extend to a person who was trespassing on the dog owner’s property when the bite occurred.
Since there's no universal rule on trespassers' rights when it comes to making a personal injury claim over a dog bite or similar injury, let’s look at a couple of state-specific examples.
In Tennessee, the law strongly protects dog bite victims, except if they were trespassing. The law in Tennessee says that a dog owner has the duty to keep hos or her animal under reasonable control at all times, and to keep the dog from running at large. (Learn more: What is 'Reasonable' in a Personal Injury Case?)
A Tennessee dog owner who breaches that duty is subject to liability for any damages suffered by a person who is injured by the dog while in a public place, or who is lawfully in or on private property. Tennessee law further states that the owner may be held liable regardless of whether the dog has shown any dangerous propensities or whether the dog's owner knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous propensities.
But in Tennessee, trespass is a defense to a dog owner's liability in certain situations. If the injured person was trespassing upon the private, nonresidential property of the dog's owner, the owner will not be liable. So if a person was trespassing upon business property and got bitten, he or she has no claim against the dog’s owner. If the injured person was trespassing on residential property, a personal injury claim against the dog’s owner may still be possible.
In contrast, New Hampshire and a number of other states have a stronger, more absolute trespass defense. New Hampshire's law says simply, "Any person to whom or to whose property, including sheep, lambs, fowl, or other domestic creatures, damage may be occasioned by a dog not owned or kept by such person shall be entitled to recover damages from the person who owns, keeps, or possesses the dog, unless the damage was occasioned to a person who was engaged in the commission of a trespass or other tort." That is very straightforward (apart from the legalese). Translation: If you get bitten by a dog in New Hampshire, you are absolutely entitled to recover damages from the dog’s owner unless you were trespassing.
But Connecticut and a few other states have a child protection exception to the trespassing defense. In Connecticut, the law says that, if a dog bites someone, the owner shall be liable for the bite, except if the victim was trespassing at the time of the bite. The law goes on to say that a child under seven years old is exempt from the trespassing provision. That means, even if a child under age seven was trespassing when he or she got bitten, the child can still recover damages from the dog’s owner.
There's the Law, and Then There's Common Sense
If you're a dog owner, even if you live in a state with a very strong trespass defense to dog owner liability (and no child protection exception), you should be very careful about leaving your dog in your yard unattended if you don’t have a fence, especially if you know that your dog will defend your property. Without a fence, someone could wander onto the property and get bitten even if the dog is on a leash or chain. Most importantly, just because your state's law says that you're not liable for dog bite injuries suffered by trespassers, that doesn't mean you have nothing to worry about. Your dog likely can't tell the difference between a trespasser and someone who has a legal right to be on your property (delivery persons, utilities employees, etc.). Learn more: When Your Pet Attacks, Are You Liable?