Dog Owners' Liability for Bites and Other Injuries: An Overview

An outline of the general principles governing the civil and criminal liability of dog owners when their pets hurt someone—and links to find more details.

By , J.D. · UC Berkeley School of Law
Updated by E.A. Gjelten, Legal Editor

Dog owners have a legal responsibility to prevent their pets from injuring people or damaging property. Here's what to know at the outset:

  • When a dog hurts someone, the owner of the animal may have to compensate the injured person for medical expenses, time lost from work, pain and suffering, and other effects of the incident. Criminal charges against the owner are also possible in rare instances.
  • The dog owner's liability insurance (usually a homeowners' or renters' policy) may cover the injured person's losses, even if the injury happens off the owner's property.
  • After a dog-bite incident, it's important for both the injured person and the animal owner to take steps to protect their legal rights.

Civil Liability For Dog-Bite Injuries

A dog owner could be liable in a civil lawsuit for a bite or another kind of injury caused by the animal if one (or more) of the following is true:

  • A dog-bite statute applies. Most states have "strict liability dog-bite laws that make owners financially responsible for dog bites (and other injuries in some states), regardless of the owner's carelessness or the dog's history.
  • The injured person can prove that the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause injury. In states without strict liability dog-bite laws, owners might be liable under a principle known as the "one-bite rule," which makes dog owners liable for injuries if they knew or should've known that their dogs were likely to hurt someone.
  • The injured person can prove that the harm occurred because the dog owner was negligent (legalese for unreasonably careless)—for instance, by violating a local leash law or leaving a gate open and allowing the dog to run out and bite the mail carrier.

The legal obligations of dog owners and related rules vary (sometimes pretty significantly) from state to state. Get details on the state dog-bite laws that could come into play where you live.

What About Criminal Liability for Dog-Bite Injuries?

Under "dangerous dog laws" in most states (and similar ordinances in many cities and counties), courts may require owners to take special precautions once their animals have injured or threatened someone. The judge may even order that the dog be euthanized if it poses a risk of serious harm. An owner who doesn't cooperate with the restrictions could face criminal penalties.

In rare cases when dogs kill people because of their owners' reckless or deliberate actions, authorities may charge the owners with manslaughter or a similar crime.

Sometimes, a state will have a specific criminal law applying to serious dog attacks. Florida, for example, authorizes criminal charges against the owner of a dog that severely injures or kills someone, if the owner knew the animal was dangerous but recklessly ignored the risk (see Fla. Stat. § 767.136).

What To Do When a Dog Has Hurt You

There are several steps you should take as soon as possible after you've been bitten or otherwise injured by a dog:

  • Get the name and phone number of the dog's owner. Even if you don't think you'll be asking for any money, you may change your mind the next day, when you discover that jumping out of the way of that lunging dog has given you a swollen ankle. If the owner has liability insurance, get that information as well.
  • Get names and contact information of any witnesses. You may need them to back up your version of what happened if you and the dog's owner later disagree or if you don't know who owns the dog. Animal control authorities may be able to find the dog from your description and then find its owner.
  • Take pictures. If you can, get a picture of the dog, your immediate visible injuries, and anything in the vicinity that might support your version of what happened (such as an open gate or a hole in the fence that the dog came through).
  • Get medical attention if you need it. If your injury is serious enough to require medical attention, get it quickly. Keep records of doctor's office or hospital visits and copies of bills.
  • Report the incident to animal control authorities. This is especially important if the dog wasn't wearing a license tag and you don't know who owns it. Many cities and some states require that a dog be quarantined after it bites someone, to see if it's rabid, so authorities may try to pick up the dog for that purpose. You'll also want to check records at the animal control department to find out if the dog has attacked someone before. That could help you negotiate with the owner (or the insurance adjuster)— or win a case in court if it goes that far.

What Legal Actions Can I Take Against a Dog Owner for a Bite?

We've outlined the above steps to take post-injury in part so that you can ensure your legal rights are protected. If you want to hold an animal owner legally responsible for your injuries and related losses ("damages" in the language of the law), there are usually two main avenues for doing this:

Of course, getting compensation for dog-bite injuries from the animal's owner (or an insurance company) isn't a given. That's especially true if one or more legal defenses might be in play.

Dog Owner Defenses to Bite/Injury Liability

The details vary from state to state, but a dog owner might be able to avoid some or all legal responsibility for injuries caused by their animal if they can prove that:

  • the injured person was trespassing at the time of the incident
  • the injured person teased or otherwise provoked the animal, and/or
  • the injured person's own recklessness or carelessness caused or contributed to the incident. (Learn more about reducing or limiting an animal owner's liability when a dog-bite victim is partly at fault.)

Even in states with strict liability dog-bite statutes (discussed above), those laws usually won't apply if the victim provoked the dog or was trespassing at the time of the injury. Learn more about legal defenses for dog bites and other injuries.

Speaking With a Lawyer After a Dog Bite

Whether you've been hurt by someone else's dog or you're the animal's owner, consider talking with a personal injury attorney to find out how local laws apply in your situation, and how best to proceed.

On the owner's side, if authorities have started proceedings to have your dog declared dangerous, you may want to consult with an animal law attorney to learn what you can to prevent a bad outcome—like having your dog seized and destroyed. And if there's any possibility of criminal charges after your dog has seriously injured or killed someone, you'd be wise to meet with a criminal defense lawyer who can help defend your rights.

If you've been injured by someone else's dog, it might make sense to discuss your options with a lawyer, especially if your injuries are serious and/or you're not getting a fair settlement offer from the dog owner's insurance company. Learn more about finding and hiring the right personal injury lawyer.

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