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Millions of Americans own dogs. For the most part, the dogs serve a dual purpose. They’re pets or companions, and at the same time they provide security for their owners and their families. Sometimes, however, the security aspect backfires. Every year, millions of Americans are bitten by dogs and often the victims need medical attention. In some rare cases, the victim dies.
Suddenly, the dog that’s supposed to protect you from losses – like theft – causes you huge financial losses. You may have to pay for the victim’s injuries on top of your own legal expenses. As a dog owner, it’s important that you have an understanding of:
- When and how the laws may make you responsible or “liable” for injuries and damages caused by your dog
- How you may be able to protect yourself from financial ruin if your dog bites someone
Dog Bite Laws
Just about every state has some sort of law that deals with dog bites. These laws can vary a lot from state to state, so you need to check the laws in your area to see how dog bites are treated. In general, though, there are three basics types of laws that may make you legally responsible or “liable” for injuries or damages caused by your dog:
- Strict liability laws
- “One Bite” laws
Many states, such as California, New Jersey, and Ohio, have strict liability laws regarding 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. It also doesn’t matter if you did everything you could to restrain your dog or to protect the public from the dog, such as put up fencing and signs.
There are a few exceptions, though. Even in a strict liability state, you’re usually not liable if your dog bites:
- A trespasser, that is, someone who’s on your property without your permission
- A veterinarian who’s treating your dog
- Someone who provokes the dog, such as by hitting it with her hand or a stick
One Bite Laws
In states like Texas or Virginia, you’re generally not liable for injuries caused by your dog’s first bite. That means your dog gets one “free” bite, and you’ll be liable for injuries caused on the second bite. For example, your dog, for the first time ever, bites someone as she walks past your home. Then, a few days later, your dog bites another person as he walks by. In a “one bite” state, assuming you didn?t violate some other law (like a leash law) or weren’t negligent (you left the fence gate open), you’re won’t be liable for the first victim’s injuries. However, because you knew the dog had bitten someone in the past (the first victim), you’ll probably be liable for the second victim’s injury.
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. “Dangerous propensity” is legal jargon that means you knew, or should have known, that your dog could hurt someone. It can be shown in any number of ways, including if:
- The dog had bitten someone in the past, that is, it had its “first bite” already
- The dog regularly snaps at people, or has to wear a muzzle “just to be safe”
- You warn people that the dog bites
Almost all states have laws that hold you responsible for injuries caused by your negligence or “negligent acts.” Negligence is a complicated area of law, with many factors and exceptions. In simple terms, though, negligence is when you do something you shouldn’t have done, or don’t do something you should have, which causes another’s injuries.
When it comes to dog bites, you may be negligent if your dog bites someone because:
- You let the dog run free even though there’s a leash law where you live
- You know the dog is “high-strung” or easily excited and you don’t take reasonable steps to shield others from the dog, such as keeping the dog away from house guests
- Your fencing (or rope or chain) isn’t secure enough to restrain the dog
In some states, negligence can be used to hold you liable even if you may not be liable under the strict liability or one-bite law in your state.
Also, you need to keep in mind that many local governments (like cities, boroughs, and townships) have laws, ordinances, or regulations about controlling dogs. It’s important that you talk to your lawyer as a soon as possible if you’re sued, or think you may be sued, over a dog bite.
First, you need to think about how to help make sure your dog doesn’t bite anyone, such as by:
- Putting up signs warning about the presence of the dog
- Making sure fencing is secure, that is, there are no holes in it or tunnels underneath it, and the gate latch works
- Keeping your dog on a leash while you’re out in public
Next, think worst-case scenario: How will you pay the victim’s damages? Insurance is your best means of protection. Talk to your insurance company about whether your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy covers not only dog bites in general, but if it covers your breed of dog.
Dog bites cost insurance companies millions of dollars each year. They pay legal fees – they usually hire attorneys to defend their insureds if they’re sued. And, they have to pay the victims’ damages if they win, including medical costs, lost wages and “pain and suffering.” It’s not uncommon for an insurance company to refuse to cover certain breeds of dogs, especially those considered by experts to be the “most dangerous.” These breeds include pit bulls, rottweilers and chow chows, just to name a few.
It’s also common for many insurance companies to increase the insurance premiums or cancel the policy altogether after an owner’s dog bites a victim and costs the company money.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Do we have a dog bite law in our state?
- My insurance agent said my homeowner’s policy would cover any injuries my dog might cause, but now it says that it won’t cover a bite victim’s damages or even defend me in court. Is there anything I can do?
- I had signs up on my fence and 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 liable? Isn’t the child liable for his own injuries because he didn’t listen to my warnings?