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Legal Liability for Your Aggressive Dog

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Understanding legal liability for dog bites and attacks is crucial if you own an aggressive dog. Each year, 800,000 Americans receive dog bites serious enough to require medical attention, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among those injured, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency room and about a dozen die. Half of those requiring treatment are children, and those in the 5 – 9 year age range comprise the largest subgroup of childhood victims. The Insurance Information Institute, an insurance industry trade organization, reports that the cost of the average dog bite claim rose from $16,600 in 2002, to $21,200 in 2005 (the most recent year for which statistics are available.)

In light of these statistics, it is not surprising that litigation to recover damages for dog-bite injuries has become commonplace. States and municipalities have enacted a wide variety of laws and regulations concerning the liability of dog owners and handlers for the injuries caused by the animals under their care. Even the most responsible dog owner may, on occasion, fail to adequately supervise an aggressive dog or fail to appreciate the risk to others that their dog may pose. It is, therefore, important to be aware of the extent of your legal liability for injuries caused by your dog.

Understanding the legal framework

Dog-Bite law (yes, there really is such a thing!) is a surprisingly complex area of the law, with most – but not all – states and many localities having specific statutes that define the liability of dog owners for injuries caused by dog attacks.

Beverly Hills attorney Kenneth M. Phillips – widely regarded as the nation’s foremost expert in this area of the law – maintains a detailed summary and compendium of dog-bite law on his Web site, from which the following information is drawn:

The states fall into one of three categories:

  • Strict Liability states
  • One Free Bite states
  • Negligence states
  • Strict Liability states

The majority of states are Strict Liability states. In those states, you are liable for injuries caused by your dog, even if you haven’t been negligent in any way. This means, for example, that even if your dog has never bitten anyone before or shown any signs of aggressiveness, you are nonetheless liable. The idea behind these laws is that as between the innocent victim and the responsible owner, the law should protect the victim.

The following states follow the Strict Liability rule:

Alabama, Iowa, New York, Arizona Kentucky, Ohio, California, Louisiana,  Oklahoma, Colorado, Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina, District of Columbia, Minnesota, Tennessee, Florida, Montana, Utah, Georgia, Nebraska, Washington, Illinois, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Indiana, New Jersey, Wisconsin

One Free Bite States

In so-called One Free Bite states, you are not liable for the first injury caused by your dog, with certain exceptions:

  • You knew or should have known that the animal was dangerous;
  • The injury results from your negligent conduct, e.g. letting go of the dog’s leash and allowing it to run unsupervised or inviting a guest into your home and then failing to supervise your dog;
  • Violation of a leash law or other local ordinance regarding the keeping of dogs.

The following states follow the One Free Bite rule:

Alaska, Mississippi, Oregon, Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota, Hawaii, Nevada, Texas, Idaho, New Mexico, Vermont,  Kansas, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, North Dakota, Wyoming

Negligence States

In virtually every state, a dog-owner is liable for injuries caused by his negligence. Negligence, in general, means doing something that a reasonable person should know might cause injury to another, or failing to do something that a reasonable person would do in order to prevent injury. Some examples would be letting your dog roam unsupervised outside your property, taking your Rottweiler into a playground, or leaving your backyard gate open, allowing your dog to escape and roam the neighborhood.

Complications, complications

As in so many areas of the law, the exceptions, conflicting decisions, as well as the facts of each particular case, make dog-bite law a much less straightforward area than one might think. For example, the number and scope of exceptions to the One Free Bite rule vary from state to state, and what exactly constitutes negligence is not always clear. The situation is further complicated by the various local dog ordinances that courts may be obligated to consider, in addition to the state statute involved.

The bottom line is this: If you or a member of your family have been injured by a dog, or if your dog has injured someone else, and you want to know your legal rights and obligations, it’s best to consult an attorney in your area who can properly advise you and guide you through the thicket of this complex and evolving area of the law.


Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas,V.M.D.
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