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.

By , J.D.
Updated by E.A. Gjelten, Legal Editor

Dogs are beloved companions in millions of households in the United States. But they also pose a potential safety risk. According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, most of them children.

When a dog hurts someone, the injured person can file an insurance claim or sue the animal's owner for medical costs and other damages. More than half of the states have laws that make animal owners 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 animal's owner knew the dog was dangerous (often called the "one-bite rule") or that the dog owner was negligent (a legal term for "careless").

In this article, we'll outline how strict liability dog-bite laws work in general and highlight the main features of the laws in states that have them.

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 certain conditions—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 or military dog when the bite happened.

Does the Law Cover Bites Only or Other Injuries and Property Damage too?

Some of the strict liability statutes are limited to dog-bite injuries. But many 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 that 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)).

More Than One Theory of Liability

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: Strict Liability Dog-Bite Laws in Your State

The chart below shows the main features of the statutes in the states that have strict liability (or "sort of strict" liability) dog-bite laws. In states that aren't listed here, lawsuits for dog bites must be based on either the dog owner's negligence or the one-bite rule.

Note that the laws shown below were updated as of March 2023. Because states can change their laws at any time, it's always a good idea to check the current statutes. (You can find your state's laws by searching on this Library of Congress guide to state laws.)

State

Statute

Bites Only?

Conditions/Exceptions in Statutes

Alabama

Ala. Code §§ 3-6-1

No

Applies only if victim is legally on owner's property or after dog chased victim from owner's property; liability limited to injured person's actual expenses if owner didn't know dog was dangerous

Arizona

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

No/

Yes

Separate laws cover liability for injuries or property damage when dog was at large (§ 11-1020) or in a public or private place (§ 11-1025); exceptions include working military or police dogs, trespassing, provocation

California

Cal. Civ. Code § 3342

Yes

Applies when a victim is bitten on public property or lawfully on private property; exceptions include working military or police dogs, trespassing

Colorado

Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-124

Yes

Injury must be serious; recovery limited to special damages (also called 'economic damages"); exceptions include trespassing, injuries on the dog owner's property if the property has a warning sign, provocation, certain victims who work with dogs (like veterinarians and dog groomers), and working dogs on owner's property

Connecticut

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 22-357

No

Applies to owners and keepers; exceptions include trespassing or other tort, provocation

Delaware

Del. Code, tit. 16, § 3053F

No

Applies to all types of injuries and property damage; exceptions include trespassing or other crimes on the dog owner's property, crimes against any person, provocation

District of Columbia

D.C. Code § 8-1808

No

Applies only when dog was at large

Florida

Fla. Stat. §§ 767.01, 767.04

No/

Yes

Separate liability statutes for damages to persons, domestic animals (§ 767.01), and bites (§ 767.04); exceptions include trespassing, comparative negligence, posting "Bad Dog" sign on owner's property (for victim over age 5)

Hawaii

Haw. Rev. Stat. §§ 663-9, 663-9.1

No

Applies to owners and harborers of an animal; exceptions include trespassing, provocation

Idaho

Idaho Code §25-2810(11) No Applies to owners and custodians; exceptions include trespassing, provocation

Illinois

510 Ill. Comp. Stat. § 5/16

No

Applies to injured persons who are acting peaceably; exceptions include trespassing, provocation

Indiana

Ind. Code § 15-20-1-3

Yes

Applies to injured persons who are acting peaceably in a location where they are required to be by law or by postal regulations

Iowa

Iowa Code § 351.28

No

Applies to domestic animals and people; exceptions include unlawful acts by victim, dogs affected by hydrophobia

Kentucky

Ky. Rev. Stat. § 258.235(4)

No

Applies to damage to a person, livestock, or other property

Louisiana

La. Civil Code Art. 2321

No

Applies only to unprovoked injuries that dog owner could have prevented

Maine

Me. Rev. Stat., tit. 7, § 3961

No

Applies only when victim is not on dog owner or keeper's property

Maryland

Md. Code, Cts. & Jud. Proc., § 3-1901

No

Injury creates rebuttable presumption that owner knew dog was dangerous; applies to injuries and property damage when dog was at large; exceptions include trespassing or other crime on owner's property, crimes against any person, provocation

Massachusetts

Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 140, § 155

No

Applies to owners and keepers; exceptions include trespassing or other tort, provocation

Michigan

Mich. Comp. Laws § 287.351

Yes

Exceptions include provocation, trespassing

Minnesota

Minn. Stat. § 347.22

No

Applies to owners and keepers; exceptions include provocation, trespassing

Missouri

Mo. Rev. Stat. § 273.036

No

Applies to owners and possessors; exceptions include provocation, trespassing

Montana

Mont. Code § 27-1-715

Yes

Applies only within incorporated city or town; exceptions include provocation, trespassing

Nebraska

Neb. Rev. Stat. § 54-601

No

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

New Hampshire

N.H. Rev. Stat. § 466:19

No

Applies to owners and keepers; exceptions include trespassing or other tort

New Jersey

N.J. Stat. § 4:19-16

Yes

Trespassing is the only exception

North Carolina

N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 67.4.1, 67.4.4, 67-12

No

Owners of dangerous dogs (defined in § 67.4.1) are liable for all injuries and property damage caused by the dogs (§ 67.4.1); owners who let dogs over six months old run at large at nighttime are liable for injuries and property damage

Ohio

Ohio Rev. Code § 955.28(B)

No

Applies to owners and keepers; exceptions include trespassing, crime other than minor misdemeanor, provocation

Oklahoma

Okla. Stat., tit. 4, § 42.1

No

Exceptions include provocation, trespassing

Oregon

Or. Rev. Stat. § 31.360

No

Liability for economic damages only; exceptions include provocation

Pennsylvania

3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502(b)(1)

Yes

Liability for medical treatment only

Rhode Island

R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-13-16

No

Applies when dog is outside of owner or keeper's enclosure

South Carolina

S.C. Code § 47-3-110

No

Applies to owners and keepers; exceptions include trespassing, provocation, working police dogs

Tennessee

Tenn. Code § 44-8-413

No

Applies when dog was not under reasonable control of the owner and when dog was running at large; exceptions include working police or military dogs, trespassing, injuries while dog protecting someone; provocation

Utah

Utah Code § 18-1-1

No

Applies to owners and keepers; exceptions include working police dogs, injury occurred on owner or keeper's private property while dog secured within fence or other enclosure

Washington

Wash. Rev. Code § 16.08.040

Yes

Exceptions include trespassing, police dogs

West Virginia

W. Va. Code § 19-20-13

No

Applies to owners and keepers if dog was at large

Wisconsin

Wis. Stat. § 174.02

No

Exception for police dog that injured a crime suspect

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been hurt by a dog, or someone has accused your dog of causing harm, talk to a lawyer. Dog bit lawsuits are emotionally draining and financially costly. The Insurance Information Institute estimates that there were around 18,000 dog-related injury claims in 2021 with a total value of $881.9 million.

A lawyer can walk you through your legal options, answer your questions, and advocate for you throughout the insurance claim process and in court. Learn more about getting help from a personal injury lawyer. When you're ready, you can connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.

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