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Dog bite law?

Wednesday May 6th, 2009

By Robyn Tas

Question:

My dog recently bit my neighbor's ten-year-old (skin wasn't broken). She's not a vicious dog, but legally am I in trouble?

answered by Robyn Tas

Answer:

Under U.S. law, dog bites inflicting injury or harm are unequivocally considered a "dangerous" activity for which liability may be imposed on the dog's owner. The potential imposition of liability depends upon the state or locality in which the incident takes place, as well as the specific facts of each case. The reason the determination varies nationwide is that some states rely upon common tort laws, which generally require a showing of fault on the part of the owner, while others rely on statutory laws, which impose strict liability for foreseeable injury regardless of a showing of fault.

Common Tort Law States: Under common tort law, a dog owner may be found at fault, and legal liability may be imposed, for injury or harm caused by a bite only if:

  • The dog exhibited a previous propensity to engage in conduct that was likely to cause injury or harm to others, and the owner knew or should have known of this propensity;
  • The owner intentionally acted in a way that caused the injury or harm; or
  • The owner acted negligently in failing to do something that could have prevented the injury or harm (i.e. failure to confine; failure to control; failure to warn).

An owner's common tort defenses include the contributory or comparative negligence of the dog bite victim, the victim's assumption of the risk, and the willful provocation on the part of the victim.

Statutory Strict Liability States: Unlike states that rely on common tort law, others, which currently include, AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, D.C., FL, GA, HI, IL, IN, IA, KY, LA, ME, MA, MI, MN, MT, NE, NH, NJ, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, TN, UT, WA, WV and WI, statutorily impose strict liability upon a dog owner regardless of whether the dog showed a propensity to engage in conduct that was likely to cause injury or harm, or the owner's knowledge of said propensity. Generally, the only defense to strict liability is that the victim provoked the dog.

Although your potential liability will depend upon the specific facts involved, assuming that the child was not harmed, either physically or emotionally by your dog's bite, your exposure to liability should be limited. However, given that your dog has now exhibited behavior that is likely to cause injury or harm if it happens again, you should take all possible precautions to prevent another incident in the future.

Robyn Tas is an accomplished attorney with a diverse background in media, contract, corporate, intellectual property and employment law.

Read more about Robyn Tas in the DogTime expert center...
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