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.

Dog owners have a legal responsibility to prevent their pets from injuring people or damaging property. So when a dog hurts someone, the owner will usually have to reimburse the victim for medical expenses, time lost from work, and pain and suffering. The dog owner's liability insurance (usually a homeowners’ or renters’ policy) may cover the cost, even if the injury happens off the owner's property.

Civil Liability in a Nutshell

A dog owner may 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:

  • The victim can prove that the injury happened 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.
  • A dog-bite statute applies. Many states have “strict liability dog-bite laws that make owners financially responsible for dog bites (and other injuries in some states), regardless of any carelessness or the dog’s history.
  • The victim can prove that the owner knew the dog had a tendency to cause that kind of injury. In states without dog-bite laws, dog owners may 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.

Dog owners may avoid some or all of their responsibility for the victims’ injuries if they can prove one of the legal defenses for dog bites and other injuries. Even in states with strict liability dog-bite statutes, those laws usually won’t apply if the victim provoked the dog or was trespassing at the time of the injury. Also, state laws generally reduce or limit the owner’s liability when a dog-bite victim is partly at fault.

What About Criminal Liability?

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).

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 names and phone numbers 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.

Speaking With a Lawyer

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. 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.

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