Strict Liability: Dog-Bite Statutes

More than half the states have statutes that make dog owners liable if their dogs cause injury.

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More than half the states make dog owners liable if their dogs cause injury, whether or not the owner had reason to think the dog was dangerous. Although commonly called dog-bite statutes, many of these state laws cover all kinds of dog-inflicted injuries, not just bites. They are called "strict liability" statutes because they impose liability without fault—that is, an injured person does not have to prove that the dog owner did anything wrong. (In other states, the "one-bite rule" applies.)

The theory behind these laws is that anyone who has a dog should be responsible for any damage it causes, period. It doesn't matter that the owner was careful with the dog, or didn't know it would hurt anyone, or tried to keep it from injuring anyone.

Dog-Bite Statutes That Cover All Kinds of Injury

The Minnesota dog-bite statute says:

“If a dog, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is acting peaceably in any place where the person may lawfully be, the owner of the dog is liable in damages to the person so attacked or injured to the full amount of the injury sustained.”

The victim doesn't have to show that the dog owner did anything wrong. To win a lawsuit under this statute, an injured person must, however, prove four things:

  1. The injured person was attacked or injured by a dog.
  2. The person being sued (the defendant) is the owner of the dog.
  3. The victim didn't provoke the dog to bite.
  4. The victim was acting peaceably somewhere he or she had the right to be.

The law doesn't require that the dog bite someone, or even make physical contact. For example, if a dog runs at and frightens someone, causing him to injure himself, the statute applies. (Morris v. Weatherly, 488 N.W.2d 508 (Minn. App. 1992).) The dog must, however, take some action that’s directed at the injured person. For example, a woman who fell on an icy walk sued the owners of the dog that she said cut in front of her in its hurry to get inside. The court ruled that because the dog had not been focused on the injured woman (it had not bumped into her or frightened her), but had been simply trying to get into the garage, the statute did not apply. (Knake v. Hund, No. A10-278, Kandiyohi County, Minn. District Court, Aug. 10, 2010.)

Statutes That Cover Only Bites

Some statutes do only cover dog bites. Here's the Arizona statute:

24-521 Liability for dog bites 
The owner of a dog which bites a person when the person is in or on a public place or lawfully in or on a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, is liable for damages suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of its viciousness.

24-523 Provocation as defense 
Proof of provocation of the attack by the person injured shall be a defense to the action for damages.

To win under this statute, the injured person must prove three things:

  1. The victim was bitten (other injuries aren't covered by the statute) by a dog.
  2. The person being sued (the defendant) is the owner of the dog.
  3. The victim was in a public place or lawfully on private property when bitten.

The dog's owner may still be able to escape liability by proving that the dog was provoked. (See "A Dog Owner's Legal Defenses.")

Because many dog-bite statutes, like this one, are limited to injuries from bites, they don't apply when the injury is caused by a dog acting playfully. For example, take the case of a German shepherd puppy that sat down in front of a three-wheeled recreational vehicle being driven by a teenage girl. She swerved to avoid the dog and hit a barbed-wire fence. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the state's dog-bite statute did not make the dog's owner liable for the injury, because the statute covers only injuries caused when a dog bites, kills, wounds, worries, or chases a person. (Holden ex rel. Holden v. Schwer,, 495 N.W.2d 269 (Neb. 1993).)  (A dissenting justice wrote that it was impossible to know whether a dog's conduct was malicious or playful: "we could, with equal reliability, predict the future from the examination of a goat's entrails," he wrote scornfully.) In another case based on the Nebraska law, a court ruled that dog owners were liable for injuries caused when their dog chased a motorcycle, causing an accident.  (Johnson v. Lindley, 41 F. Supp. 2d 1021 (D. Neb. 1999).)

What if the dog bites but doesn’t wound? One court, at least, found that the dog-bite statute still applied. A man was on a ladder doing some repairs when a German shepherd puppy jumped at him and took his leg in its jaws. The skin wasn’t broken, but the man fell off the ladder and was injured. The court ruled that the state dog-bite statute applied, making the dog’s owners liable. (Johnson v. McMahon, 68 Cal. App. 4th 173 (1998).)

In almost all states, dog-bite statutes don't affect the other rules of liability. That means someone who is injured by a dog and sues the owner has a choice of suing under the statute, if it applies to the situation, under a common law theory (and having to prove the owner knew the dog was dangerous), or on a negligence theory. For example, in a Minnesota case, a dog, distracting the driver of a car, caused an accident that killed a young boy. The dog had not "attacked or injured" the boy, the state supreme court ruled, so the state's dog-bite statute did not apply. The boy's family could, however, sue under a negligence theory, and try to prove that the dog's owner had not taken reasonable care in controlling the dog. (Lewellin v. Huber, 465 N.W.2d 62 (Minn. 1991).)

Strict Liability Dog-Bite Statutes

Here are the states that have statutes imposing strict liability on dog owners. In other words, owners are responsible for injuries their dogs cause, whether or not a owner knew or had reason to know the dog was dangerous.

State

Statute

Bites Only?

Other Provisions

Alabama

Ala. Code § 3-6-1

no

Only applies if injury on owner's property

Arizona

 Ariz. Rev. Stat. §11-1025

 

yes

Strict liability

 

Ariz. Rev. Stat. §11-1020

no

Only applies if dog at large

California

Cal. Civ. Code  § 3342

yes

 

Colorado

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-124

yes

Injury must be severe

Connecticut

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 22-357

no

Injured person must prove not committing tort

Delaware

9 Dela. Code § 913

No

 

District of Columbia

D.C. Code Ann. § 8-1812

no

Must prove negligence, but ignorance of dog's viciousness not absolute defense Only applies if dog at large

Florida

Fla. Stat. Ann. §§ 767.01

no

 

Fla. Stat. Ann. §§ 767.04

yes

Owner not liable (except to children under 6, or if owner was negligent) if displayed sign including words "Bad Dog"

 



Illinois

510 Ill. Comp. Stat., § 5/16

no

Injured person must prove lack of provocation or trespassing.

Indiana

Ind. Code 15-20-1-3

yes

 

Iowa

Iowa Code Ann. § 351.28

no

Injured person must prove not doing unlawful act that contributed to the injury

Kentucky

Ky. Rev. Stat. § 258.235

no

 

Louisiana

Iowa Code Ann. § 351.28

no

 

Maine

Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., tit. 7, § 3961

no

Injured person must prove not at fault

Massachusetts

Mass. Gen. Laws Ann., ch. 140, § 155

no

Injured person must prove not trespassing or committing tort (unless less than 7 years old)

Michigan

Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 287.351

yes

 

Minnesota

Minn. Stat. Ann. § 347.22

no

Owner "primarily liable"

Missouri

Mo. Rev. Stat. 273.036

yes

 

Montana

Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-715

yes

Applies only in city or town

Nebraska

Neb. Rev. Stat. § 54-601

no

Injured person must prove not trespasser. Applies only if dog chases, bites, kills or wounds

New Hampshire

N. H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 466:19

no

Injured person must prove not trespassing or committing tort

New Jersey

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:19-16

yes

 

Ohio

Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 955.28

no

Injured person must prove not trespassing or teasing, tormenting, or abusing dog on owner's property

Oklahoma

Okla. Stat. Ann., tit. 4, § 42.1

no

 

Pennsylvania

3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502 (b)

yes

Owner must pay injured person's medical bills

Rhode Island

R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-13-16

no

Only applies if dog out of enclosure. On second occurrence, double damages and court can order dog killed

South Carolina

S.C. Code Ann. § 47-3-110

no

Applies only if dog bites or attacks

Utah

 

no

Possible criminal liability

Washington

Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 16.08.040

yes

 

West Virginia

W. Va. Code § 19-20-13

no

Only applies if dog at large

Wisconsin

Wis. Stat. Ann. § 174.02

no

After owner has notice that dog has caused injury, double damages and penalties

Maryland does not have a strict-libaiblity statute, but Maryland courts have imposed strict liability on anyone responsible for injury caused by a "pit bull." (Tracey v. Solesky, 50 A.3d 1075 (Md. Ct. App. 2012), upheld by Weigel v. Maryland, 950 F. Supp. 2d 811 (D. Md. 2013).)

Other Dog-Bite Statutes

A few states have statutes on the books about dog bites, but don’t impose strict liability.

Georgia

Ga. Code Ann. § 51-2-7

no

Owner liable if the dog was a “dangerous animal” or off leash or not under control

Hawaii

Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 663-9, 663-9.1

no

Injured person must prove owner was negligent, unless animal is known to be dangerous

North Carolina

N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 67-4.4

no

Owner of a dangerous dog liable

Tennessee

Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413

no

Not exactly strict liability, but owner may be liable without knowledge of dog’s dangerous propensity

 

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