Personal Injury

When Your Pet Attacks, Are You Liable?

By David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
From "man's best friend" to exotic animals, here's an in-depth explanation of a pet owner's liability for bites and other injuries.

Owners of all kinds of animals -- whether we're talking about dogs, cats, horses, birds, even exotic (and in some cases illegal) pets -- need to understand the legal rules of liability if their animal attacks or otherwise injures someone else. Read on for the details.

Dog Bite Laws

The most common household pets in the United States are dogs, cats, birds and fish. Dogs are the most popular companion, and also the likeliest to cause injury. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, and 1 in 5 bite victims require some form of medical attention. The losses from injuries associated with dog bites exceed $1 billion per year, and that includes settlements and judgments after a dog-bite related personal injury claim or lawsuit.

Every state has its own version of a dog bite law on the books. The details may look a little different, but in general these states fall into one of two categories:

  • states that impose strict liability for dog bites (and in some cases other kinds of injuries), making owners liable regardless of what steps they took to prevent the bite, and regardless of whether the dog had acted aggressively in the past. States that follow this rule include California, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
  • states that follow a "one bite" rule, making owners liable when they knew or should have known that the animal was likely to bite, usually based on the animal's past behavior. Georgia, New York, and Texas are in this camp, along with around 15 other states.

You can find in-depth discussion of the law in your state at Nolo.com: Strict Liability Dog Bite States and "One Bite" States.

It's important to note that regardless of what any state statute says about dog owner liability, if the dog bite victim can show that you were negligent in connection with the bite -- maybe you didn't take reasonable steps to control your animal, or you were breaking a leash law at the time of the attack -- you're going to be liable for "damages." That includes the injured person's medical bills, lost income, "pain and suffering," and other negative effects of the incident.

Wild and Exotic Animals

There are those animal lovers who prefer a more exotic (and sometimes illegal) companion. Choosing a monkey, alligator, boa constrictor or tiger as a pet increases your exposure to civil liability, and you could be opening yourself up to criminal prosecution as well, depending on the laws in your state where you live.

If you own an exotic animal, you are responsible for knowing the laws associated with caring for and controlling that animal. If you violate those laws, and someone is injured, you're going to be liable for the resulting injuries.

To get more details on the law in your state, talk to an attorney, or check out the non-profit organization Born Free USA's Summary of State Laws on the Private Possession of Exotic Animals.

Insurance, Dangerous Breeds, and Exotic Animals

In general, a homeowner's insurance policy will cover an incident where your dog attacks someone and causes them injury. However, fair or not, many insurance companies are putting provisions in their policies that exclude certain breeds of dogs that the insurers consider inherently dangerous, such as pit bulls and rottweilers. (More: Does homeowners' insurance cover a dog bite claim?)

And if you own an exotic animal, don't count on your homeowner's insurance covering any incident where the animal attacks or injures someone. Chances are your policy carries a specific exclusion for "wild" or "undomesticated" or "exotic" pets.

A number of state and local governments have passed laws to restrict or ban ownership of certain breeds of dog, regardless of past incidents of bad behavior. Some laws require owners of dangerous breeds to obtain a certain level of public liability insurance in case their dog attacks someone, and/or muzzle the animal while it's in public.

The American Kennel Club (AKC), along with dog owners and animal rights organizations, strongly oppose breed-specific specific legislation as discriminatory, but these kinds of laws have been upheld when challenged in court.

Criminal Charges for Animal Owners?

It's not just the prospect of a personal injury claim that you need to worry about if your animal attacks someone. If your dog has been designated "dangerous" under a state or local ordinance, if the circumstances of the attack were particularly egregious, or if you knowingly kept an illegal wild animal, you could also face criminal charges in connection with the incident. Depending on the seriousness of the offense (including whether your animal was already classified as "dangerous" prior to the incident), it could be classified as a misdemeanor or felony. Fines and jail time are just two of the consequences you could face.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have to worry about whether local laws and my homeowner's insurance policy are in agreement when it comes to coverage for pets that might be considered exotic?
  • Can criminal charges be brought against a person who didn't know that their exotic pet was illegal?
  • In personal injury cases involving animals, do juries tend to view some breeds or species as more dangerous than others?
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