For many of the millions of dog owners in America, a dog offers “man’s best friend”-level companionship along with that age-old canine trait of loyalty. For others, dogs provide security, which for some can mean emotional support, and for others can mean physical safety from intruders and other wanted visitors.
Sometimes, the physical safety aspect backfires, or an ordinarily well-behaved companion acts out, and someone is bitten. If that happens, you could be faced with a personal injury claim or lawsuit, brought by the person who was bitten. If there’s no applicable insurance coverage, you could end up paying for the victim's medical expenses and other losses on top of your own legal expenses.
As a dog owner, it's important that you have an understanding of when the law may make you responsible for injuries and other damages caused by your dog, and how you may be able to protect yourself financially in case your dog bites someone. Read on to learn more.
Understand Your State’s Dog Bite Laws
Just about every state has a clearly-delineated legal rule for pet owner liability arising from dog bites, whether it comes directly from a law passed by legislators, or from decisions handed down by the state’s appellate courts over the years.
These rules can vary significantly from state to state, so talk to an experienced personal injury attorney for the details on the law in place where you live. In general, though, there are three basics types of legal principles that could determine whether or not you are liable for injuries and other damages caused by your dog:
- strict liability laws
- "one bite" laws, and
Let’s take a closer look at how these different rules work in the context of a dog bite case.
Many states -- including California, Michigan, and New Jersey -- follow strict liability rules when it comes to dog bites. Basically, a strict liability law means that you, as the dog's owner, are liable for just about every injury your dog causes. It doesn't matter if you knew your dog was dangerous or had bitten someone in the past. Nor does it matter that you did everything you could to restrain your dog or to protect the public from the dog, such as put up fencing and warning signs.
There are a few exceptions, though. Even in a strict liability state, you're usually not liable if your dog bites:
- a trespasser (someone who is on your property without your permission), or
- someone who provokes the dog, by hitting it or otherwise acting aggressively toward it.
“One Bite” Laws
In Georgia, New York, Texas, and more than a dozen other states, you might not be liable for injuries caused by your dog's first bite, if you had no reason to know your dog was inclined to act aggressively. That essentially means your dog gets one "free" bite or other aggressive act against someone before you’re considered on notice, and you'll be liable for injuries caused by your dog after that first incident.
For example, let’s say your dog, for the first time ever, bites someone who happens to be walking past your driveway. Then, a few days later, your dog bites another person in the same area. In a "one bite" state, you may not be automatically liable for the first victim's injuries (unless you were negligent in connection with the incident). However, you'll likely be liable for the second victim's injuries, since that incident happened in the wake of the first.
Again, there are some exceptions here. The "one bite" rule doesn't protect you if, before the first bite, you actually knew, or had a reason to believe, that your dog had a dangerous propensity -- meaning you knew, or should have known, that your dog had a habit of acting aggressively and could foreseeably hurt someone. And if the court decides that you violated some other law (like a leash law) or you were negligent in connection with the dog bite (you left a gate open, for example), then any protection you might have had under the “one bite” rule will probably go out the proverbial window. More in-depth discussion of negligence follows in the next section.
In every state, people (not just dog owners) are usually deemed legally responsible for any injuries they end up causing as a result of their negligent acts. But what is “negligence”? It’s a legal concept that focuses on the reasonableness of a person’s actions based on the circumstances they are faced with.
Basically, you are said to owe a certain legal duty of care to others in certain situations, and you can breach that duty by failing to act with the appropriate amount of care. If someone is injured in connection with your breach of the duty of care, you can be on the legal (and financial) hook for all resulting damages.
That’s a bit of an esoteric explanation, so let’s apply the concept of negligence to dog bites. As a dog owner, you might be considered negligent if:
- You let your dog run free even though there's a local leash law where you live, and she bites a neighborhood kid who is walking home from school.
- You know your dog is "high-strung" or easily excited, but you don't take reasonable steps to shield others from the dog, (by keeping him in a fenced-in yard, for example) and he jumps on the UPS guy, knocking him to the ground.
- The fencing you have installed, or the rope or the chain you use to restrain your dog, isn't secure enough to do the job, and he breaks free, injuring someone.
Remember, in any state, if your negligence plays a part in causing someone to be injured by your dog, you will probably be considered liable regardless of whether you live in a “strict liability” state or in a “one-bite” state.
Protect Yourself as a Dog Owner
The best way to make sure your dog doesn’t injure someone is to take as many precautions as you can, to prevent a bite or any other aggressive action. Here are some steps that could go a long way toward protecting others, yourself, and your dog:
- Put up signs warning visitors about the presence of the dog.
- Make sure fencing is tall enough and otherwise secure -- that is, there are no holes in it, the dog can’t tunnel beneath it, and any latch works properly.
- Keep your dog on a leash while you're out in public, regardless of what state and local leash laws require.
Finally, if you own a dog, if you haven’t already done so, it’s time talk to your insurance company about whether your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy covers dog bites in general, and also whether it covers your dog specifically.
Insurance companies pay millions of dollars each year to defend dog bite claims made under homeowner’s insurance policies. If someone files a lawsuit claiming your dog bit them, and the incident is covered under your policy, that provides the best financial protection you can ask for.
The insurance company will hire an attorney to defend you if you are sued. And they have to pay the dog bite victim’s damages if there is a judgment against you, including medical costs, lost wages and "pain and suffering," up to the limits of your coverage.
But keep in mind that it's not uncommon for an insurance company to refuse to cover certain breeds of dogs, especially those considered “dangerous." That could include pit bulls and rottweilers, just to name a few. It's also common for an insurance company to increase your insurance premiums or cancel your policy altogether if your dog bites someone, but that’s only after they have fully defended any claim against you.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Is our state a "one bite" state or a "strict liability" state?
- My insurance agent said my homeowner’s policy would cover any injuries my dog might cause, but now the company says it won’t defend me in court. Is there anything I can do?
- I repeatedly told the neighbor kids not to come into my yard unless I was there to make sure my dog wouldn’t hurt them. One child didn’t listen and jumped over my fence. My dog bit him. Am I still liable?