Strict Liability Dog-Bite Laws

Most states in the U.S. make dog owners financially responsible when their animals bite someone, even if the owner wasn’t negligent or didn’t know the dog could be dangerous. But there may be exceptions and conditions.

When a dog hurts someone, the injured person is likely to sue the animal’s owner for medical costs and other damages. In more than half of the states, those lawsuits may be based on laws that make the owner automatically liable for most dog-bite injuries. These laws are often called “strict liability” statutes, because the injured person doesn’t have to prove that the dog owner was negligent (legalese for careless) or knew that the dog was dangerous (often called the “one-bite rule”).

How Strict is the Liability?

The theory behind strict-liability statutes is that anyone who has a dog should be responsible for any damage it causes, period. But a few states have dog-bite statutes that aren’t really all that strict, because they apply only under conditions that may be under the owner’s control—like when the dog is roaming “at large.”

Also, dog owners may have legal defenses to avoid liability for dog bites. Most dog-bite laws include exceptions—typically when the injured person was trespassing or provoked the dog. And many of the laws don't apply if the dog was performing its duties as a police dog when the bite happened.

Only Bites or More?

Some of the strict-liability statutes are limited to the injuries that result from an actual dog bite. But most of them also cover other injuries, such as when a dog causes an accident by chasing a motorcycle or bicycle. Depending on the conditions, however, those laws might not cover a situation when someone is injured because a dog was acting playfully or just going about its business. For example, Nebraska’s statute applies only when the dog has killed, injured, chased, or bothered a person or another animal. Because of that, the state’s supreme court ruled that a dog owner wasn’t liable for an injury the resulted when a puppy sat down in front of a recreational vehicle, causing the driver to swerve and hit a fence. (Holden ex rel. Holden v. Schwer, 394 N.W.2d 269 (Neb. 1993).)

Even in states that limit the owner's liability to bite injuries, courts may interpret the laws to apply when there wasn’t broken skin or a wound from the “bite.” For instance, a California court found that a dog owner was liable for injuries that resulted when a man fell off a ladder after the dog grabbed his leg in its jaws (Johnson v. McMahon, 68 Cal. App. 4th 173 (1998)).

Other Bites at the Apple

In almost all states, dog-bite statutes don't affect the other rules for suing someone who’s responsible for an injury caused by a dog. Depending on the situation, that means an injured person may sue based on a strict liability statute, the owner’s negligence, or the one-bite rule. If a court finds that one of those doesn’t apply, it could still allow the case to move forward on another legal principle.

Chart: Dog-Bite Statutes in the States

The chart below shows the main features of the statutes in states with strict-liability (or “sort of strict” liability) dog-bite laws. Because states can change their laws at any time, it’s always a good idea to check the current statutes (by clicking on the links in the table).

State

Statute

Bites Only?

Conditions/Exceptions in Statutes

Alabama

Ala. Code §§ 3-6-1–3-6-3

No

Applies only if injury happened on owner's property or after dog chased victim from owner’s property; liability limited to expenses if owner didn’t know dog was dangerous

Arizona

Ariz. Rev. Stat. §§ 11-1020, 11-1025, 11-1027

Yes/

No

Provocation, trespassing, working military or police dogs; separate law covers liability for injuries or property damage when dog was at large, with no exceptions

California

Cal. Civ. Code § 3342

Yes

Trespassing, working military or police dogs

Colorado

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-124

Yes

Injury must be severe; exceptions include military or police dogs, working dogs on owner’s property, provocation, trespassing, and injury on owner’s property with warning sign

Connecticut

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 22-357

No

Provocation, trespassing or other tort

Delaware

Del. Code Ann. tit. 16, § 3053F

No

Provocation, trespassing or other crime

District of Columbia

D.C. Code Ann. § 8-1812

No

Applies only when dog was at large

Florida

Fla. Stat. Ann. §§ 767.01, 767.04

Yes/

No

Trespassing or failure to post “Bad Dog” sign on owner’s property (for victim over age 5); separate liability statute for any damage to livestock or persons

Hawaii

Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 663-9, 663-9.1

No

Provocation; trespassing

Illinois

510 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/16

No

Provocation; trespassing

Indiana

Ind. Code § 15-20-1-3

Yes

Provocation; only applies if victim was legally required to be in place where bitten

Iowa

Iowa Code Ann. § 351.28

No

Illegal act by victim

Kentucky

Ky. Rev. Stat. § 258.235(4)

No

None in statute

Louisiana

La. Civil Code Ann. Art. 2321

No

Applies only to unprovoked injuries that dog owner could have prevented

Maine

Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., tit. 7, § 3961

No

Applies only when victim is not on dog owner’s property

Maryland

Md. Code Ann. [Cts. & Jud. Proc.] § 3-1901

No

When dog was at large, exceptions for victim’s provocation, trespassing, or crime; otherwise, injury creates rebuttable presumption that owner knew dog was dangerous

Massachusetts

Mass. Gen. Laws Ann., ch. 140, § 155

No

Provocation, trespassing, or other tort (unless victim was under age 7)

Michigan

Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 287.351

Yes

Provocation, trespassing

Minnesota

Minn. Stat. Ann. § 347.22

No

Provocation, trespassing

Missouri

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 273.036

Yes

Provocation, trespassing

Montana

Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-715

Yes

Provocation, trespassing; applies only in city or town

Nebraska

Neb. Rev. Stat. § 54-601

No

Applies when dogs kill, injure, worry, or chase people or domestic animals; exceptions for trespassing (for bites only) and military or police dogs (under certain conditions)

New Hampshire

N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 466:19

No

Trespassing or other tort

New Jersey

N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:19-16

Yes

Trespassing

North Carolina

N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 67-12

No

Applies only when dog over six months old was at large in nighttime

Ohio

Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 955.28(B)

No

Provocation or trespassing on owner’s property, other crime other than minor misdemeanor

Oklahoma

Okla. Stat. Ann., tit. 4, § 42.1

No

Provocation, trespassing

Oregon

Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 31.360

No

Provocation

Pennsylvania

3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502(b)(1)

Yes

Liability for medical treatment

Rhode Island

R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-13-16

No

Applies when dog is outside of owner’s enclosure

South Carolina

S.C. Code Ann. § 47-3-110

No

Provocation, trespassing, working police dogs

Tennessee

Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413

No

Applies only when dog was at large; exceptions include provocation, trespassing on owner’s property, working police or military dogs, and injuries while dog was protecting someone

Utah

Utah Code § 18-1-1

No

Working police dogs

Washington

Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 16.08.040

Yes

Trespassing, police dogs

West Virginia

W. Va. Code § 19-20-13

No

Only applies if dog was at large

Wisconsin

Wis. Stat. Ann. § 174.02

No

Police dog that injured a crime suspect

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