Americans love their dogs. But dogs—even normally gentle or old dogs—hurt people all the time, even by accident. When that happens, the victims generally aren’t shy about suing to try to get compensation for their injuries. In some of those lawsuits, the victims will argue that the dog owners are liable for the injuries because they were negligent (legalese for careless) in handling their pets.
In order to win a lawsuit based on negligence, the injured person must prove that:
In addition to all of these “elements,” courts may look at another factor when deciding whether someone was negligent: whether the injury was “reasonably foreseeable,” meaning the dog owner should have been able to expect that it would happen under the circumstances.
It’s not all that common for dog-bite victims to sue based only on negligence. Most states have “strict liability” laws that make owners automatically liable for most dog-bite injuries; there’s no need to prove the owner was negligent or knew the dog was dangerous. Victims usually turn to a negligence claim in states without strict liability dog-bite laws or in circumstances where the law doesn’t apply—for instance, if it only covers bite injuries, but an injury happened when a dog jumped on someone. And in states that use the “one-bite rule”—which makes dog owners liable for injuries only if they knew or should’ve known their animals could be dangerous—victims who can’t prove that knowledge may sue for negligence. (However, the dog’s history could still play a role in a negligence suit; more on that below.)
Still, it can be difficult to prove all the elements of negligence. The outcome of any case depends on the particular circumstances, as well as how other courts in the state have interpreted the law.
As a general rule, dog owners have a duty to use reasonable care in order to prevent their animals from injuring others in predictable ways. But that duty doesn’t necessarily extend to everyone, such as a burglar who has broken into a dog owner’s house. And in some circumstances, it may not even apply to innocent passersby. In a Colorado case, two pit bulls barked and lunged at a passing eight-year-old boy from behind a chain link fence that held them in their yard. The dogs didn't escape from the yard or touch the boy. But he got scared and ran into the street, where a van hit him. The boy's parents sued the dogs’ owner, claiming that he was negligent by not preventing the pit bulls from frightening people walking in front of his house. But the Colorado Supreme Court found that the owner didn’t owe a duty of care to the passing child, so there wasn't any negligence. (N.M. by and through Lopez v. Trujillo, (397 P.3d 370 (Colo. 2017).)
Someone who is taking care of a dog may also have a duty to prevent it from hurting others (see “Who’s Liable for Dog Bites: Owners and Keepers”).
A lot of factors can affect whether a court will find that a dog owner acted reasonably, including:
If a dog bites someone because of its owner’s carelessness, it’s pretty clear that the negligence caused the injuries from the bite. But the question of “proximate cause” is more complicated when the dog hasn’t actually bitten or even touched the injured person. The most common example is when someone gets hurt while running from or trying to avoid a scary dog. In many cases involving dogs chasing cyclists who then fell (discussed above), courts have found that the negligent owners were liable. But the result could be different if the frightened person acts erratically—like suddenly stepping into the street and getting hit by a car; in that case, the court may decide that the car caused the injury, not the dog (see Sink v. Moore, 148 S.E.2d 265 (1966).
Not all states allow someone injured by a dog to sue on a negligence claim. For instance, as a result of court decisions in New York since at least 2009, pet owners in that state won’t be liable for injuries unless they knew or should’ve known than their animals could be dangerous (Petrone v. Fernandez, 910 N.E.2d 993 (N.Y. Ct. App. 2009).) And in Alabama, a dog owner isn’t liable for injury caused by the animal unless the owner knew about its dangerous or mischievous tendencies (Williams v. Hill, 658 So.2d 381 (Ala. 1995).)
If you’ve been hurt by a dog, or you’re being sued by someone who blames you and your dog for an injury, you should consider speaking with a personal injury attorney. The legal rules about proving negligence in a dog-bite case can be complicated and can vary significantly from state to state. Whether you’re the injured person or the dog owner, a lawyer experienced in this area can explain how the law applies to your situation, and can help protect your rights.