What Happens If the Dog-Bite Victim Was Partly at Fault?

When a dog-bite victim and dog owner share liability for the victim’s injuries, states have different rules for deciding how much compensation the victim should receive—if they get anything.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law
Updated 5/12/2023

If someone else's dog bit you or caused another kind of injury, you may be thinking about filing a lawsuit or insurance claim to get compensation for your injuries. If you do, the other side—the dog's owner, the owner's insurance company, or their attorney—will probably argue that you were at least partly responsible for what happened.

What if you do share some of the blame? Maybe you entered your neighbor's yard despite a "Beware of Dog" sign, or you put your hand through a fence to pet a dog. How will that affect your claim?

The answer depends largely on the state where you were hurt, as well as the individual circumstances of your case. It may also depend on the law or legal theory supporting your case.

Let's find out if the dog owner might have a legal defense to your dog-bite lawsuit.

How Shared Fault Works in Dog-Bite Cases

When both the plaintiff (the person injured by the dog) and the defendant (usually the dog's owner) are partly to blame for a dog-bite injury, the state's shared fault rules will play a significant role in determining how much compensation—if any—the plaintiff can get. (Learn more about negligence and fault.) Every state has some version of these rules, also known as "comparative negligence" or "contributory negligence" rules.

There are basically three approaches to shared fault:

  • Pure comparative negligence. Several states (including California and Florida), are pure comparative negligence states. In a pure comparative negligence state, any compensation for the plaintiff's injury gets reduced by a percentage equal to the plaintiff's share of fault, even if the plaintiff was almost entirely to blame.
  • Modified comparative negligence. Most states (including Texas, Ohio, and Illinois) use a similar rule, except that plaintiffs won't receive any compensation if their share of the fault reaches a certain point (usually 50% or 51%).
  • Contributory negligence. In just a few states (as well as the District of Columbia), plaintiffs can't recover any damages in a lawsuit if they contributed in even the smallest way to the dog bite or other injury.

Naturally, there are variations on these approaches. For instance, South Dakota uses a type of comparative negligence rule, but only when the plaintiff's negligence was "slight" in comparison to the defendant's negligence (S.D. Codified Laws § 20-9-2 (2023)).

And in Arizona, juries can deny any compensation for plaintiffs who "willfully or wantonly" contribute to their own injuries, but only if the defendant's negligent actions weren't willful or wanton (Williams v. Thude, 934 P.2d 1349 (Ariz. 1997)).

When Do Shared-Fault Rules Apply?

A state's shared-fault rule will apply in a lawsuit where the plaintiff claims that their injuries happened because a dog owner was negligent—for instance, by not properly controlling the animal or by letting it run loose in violation of local leash laws. But that's not the only legal basis for a dog-bite lawsuit.

Depending on the state and the circumstances of the injury, a plaintiff might also sue based on:

  • a rule that makes owners legally responsible if they knew their dog was dangerous (often called the "one-bite rule"), or
  • "strict liability" dog-bite laws that make owners liable for bites (and sometimes other injuries), even if they didn't know their dog could be dangerous.

In many states, the strict liability dog-bite laws don't apply when the victim provoked the dog or was trespassing. So if that were true, the victim would have to prove that the owner was negligent or knew that the dog was dangerous—and the state's comparative or contributory negligence rule might come into play.

Courts in some states have decided that comparative negligence rules don't apply in lawsuits based on those states' strict liability dog-bite statutes (for example, see Hill v. Sacka, 666 N.W.2d 282 (Mich. Ct. App. 2003)). Other state courts have taken the opposite position (see Fandrey ex rel. Connell v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., 680 N.W.2d 345 (Wis. 2004)).

Example: How Comparative Negligence Affects the Outcome

Here's how a comparative negligence rule might affect what you receive in compensation in a dog-bite case. Let's say the jury finds that your damages (including medical bills and "pain and suffering") total $20,000, but that you were 25% responsible for causing the incident that led to the injury. That means you would receive $15,000 ($20,000 minus 25%).

What if the jury decides you were 60% to blame, and you live in a state that uses a modified comparative negligence rule? In that case, you wouldn't receive any money at all.

What About Settlements?

You may have heard that most dog-bite injury claims end up settling before trial. That's certainly true, but your state's comparative or contributory negligence rule will still be a factor during settlement negotiations.

Why? Because the dog owner's insurance company or attorney is always thinking about what might happen if the case ends up in court. So you can expect any settlement offer to reflect the other side's view of the part you played in causing or contributing to your injuries.

Get Help With Your Dog-Bite Case

This is a complicated area of the law. Some of the rules come from statutes and some from court decisions. And the law is always changing. So if you're involved in a lawsuit over a dog bite or other injury—whether you're the victim or the animal's owner—you should strongly consider talking with a lawyer.

Here's how to find an experienced personal injury lawyer in your area who's right for your case.

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