Who Is Liable for Dog Bites: Owners and Keepers

Someone who doesn’t own a dog may still be liable when it injures someone, depending on the circumstances and local law.

Usually, dog owners are legally responsible for bites and other injuries caused by their animals. But someone else may also be liable (along with the owner) in certain situations, including when:

  • a person other than the owner had care or control over the dog
  • the dog's owner is less than 18 years old, or
  • the owner's landlord knew the dog was dangerous but didn't do anything about it.

Keepers and Harborers

Under “common law” rules that make owners liable for injuries when they were negligent or knew their dogs were dangerous, someone who’s taking care of a dog may be just as liable as the legal owner. Also, many of the states with “strict liability” dog-bite statutes—which make owners financially responsible when their dogs bite someone regardless of the animal’s history—define an “owner” as including someone who’s keeping a dog. The definition might also include those who harbor an animal. (Note that the definition may be in a separate statute from the law that makes owners strictly liable.)

But what exactly does it mean to keep or harbor a dog? Occasionally, a statute will at least partially answer that question. For instance, for purposes of Arizona’s dog-bite law, the state defines a dog owner as anyone who keeps the animal for more than six consecutive days (Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 11-1001, 11-1025). Generally, however, it’s up to the courts to decide when someone is a dog’s keeper or harborer.

Most courts agree that you aren’t a dog’s keeper unless you exercise care, custody, or control over animal in order. Often, that happens when you’ve agreed to take care of the dog or that’s your job (more on that later). Just giving a dog commands doesn’t necessarily qualify as control. For instance, while a woman was visiting her son, his dog injured someone. Even though she may have called the dog or let it in and out of the home, the court found that she wasn’t its keeper under New York law because she didn’t exercise “dominion and control” over the animal. (Zwinge v. Love, 37 A.D.2d 874 (N.Y. App. Div. 1971).)

The standards are lower for harboring a dog. Still, it usually means more than giving a meal to a stray or allowing a dog in your home briefly. Some examples of how courts decide whether someone is harboring an animal:

  • A woman let an acquaintance stay in her house for several months with his two dogs. The dogs bit someone when their owner let them loose from the house. Even though the woman wasn't controlling the animals at the time, the court ruled that she was harboring them. So she was liable for the injuries under the state’s dog-bite statute. (Pawlowski v. American Family Mutual Ins. Co., 322 Wis.2d 21 (2009).)
  • Illinois courts have said that harboring a dog is limited to situations when a non-owner gives the animal food and shelter on a semipermanent basis. (See Frost v. Robave, 694 N.E.2d 581 (Ill. App. Ct. 1998) and Whitten v. Luck, 6 N.E.3d 866 (Ill. App. Ct. 5th 2014).)
  • In contrast, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a jury could find a father was harboring his son’s dog when the son was simply visiting with his pet. The father no longer lived at the house and wasn’t there when the animal injured someone across the street. However, the court pointed out the son often visited the house, where he had grown up, and had discussions with his parents about rules for the dog’s conduct while he was there. (Anderson v. Christopherson, 816 N.W.2d 626 (Minn. 2012).)

Temporary Caretakers

When someone like a dog sitter or house sitter agrees to take care of another person’s dog temporarily, the caretaker will usually be considered the animal’s keeper at the time. But it can depend on the individual circumstances, as well as the court. For example:

  • An Illinois court found that a ten-year-old boy who was bitten by the neighbors’ dog couldn’t sue the owners because the boy was the animal’s keeper at the time. He had agreed to take care of the dog for five days while the neighbors were out of town. (Doherty v. Sadler, 689 N.E.2d 332 (Ill. App. Ct. 1997).) The same was true for a woman who agreed to feed and walk her employer’s dog while he was on vacation. (Kent v. Block, 623 N.W.2d 906 (Minn. App. 2001.)
  • The Utah Supreme Court found that a man was not the keeper of his son’s dog when the animal got loose from its chain and attacked a child. Even though the father had had agreed to check on the dog while his son was on vacation, to make sure it had enough food and water, he hadn’t assumed custody or control over the animal. (Neztsosie v. Meyer, 883 P.2d 920 (Utah 1994).)
  • People who walk someone else’s dog as an incidental favor aren’t necessarily the dog’s keeper. (See American Family Mut. Ins. Co. v. Williams, 135 F.Supp.3d 834 (S.D. Ind. 2015) and Prucinsky v. Evans, 822 A.2d 390 (Ct. Super. Ct. 2003).)

Professional Caretakers

People who assume responsibility for dogs as part of their job will usually be considered the animals’ keepers. This rule applies to several kinds of professionals, including:

  • professional dog walkers
  • groomers and kennel operators (Carlson v. Friday, 694 N.W.2d 828 (Minn. Ct. App. 2005))
  • vet technicians (Salisbury v. Ferioli, 730 N.E.2d 373 (Mass. App. Ct. 2000)), and
  • shelter employees (Kirchgessner v. County of Tazewell, 162 Ill. App. 3d 510 (1987)).

Children and Parents

If a child under age 18 owns or is taking care of a dog, the minor’s parents are probably liable when the dog injures someone. Some dog-bite laws say that explicitly. Also, some states have laws that make parents responsible, to a limited extent, for any damage their minor children cause. In other states, courts are likely to rule that the parents are harboring or keeping the dog in their home.

In unusual circumstances, however, the parents may not be liable. Take the example of a mother who arranged to have an animal hospital keep her son’s dog while she was out of town. The 14-year-old boy, who was staying with friends, managed on his own to get the dog out of the hospital. When it bit a child, the court found that the mother was not responsible because she wasn’t the dog’s keeper at the time. (Janssen v. Voss, 207 N.W. 279 (Wis. 1926).)

Injured children usually can’t sue their parents for negligence when the family dog bites them. Many states have adopted a doctrine known as "parental immunity," which is based on the theory that it would disrupt family harmony if children could sue parents for failing to supervise and protect them adequately. However, some states have allowed children to sue their parents based on a strict-liability dog-bite statute.

Property Owners and Landlords

Usually, landlords who don’t have control over their tenants’ dogs won’t be liable when the animals injure someone. But in some states, they may be responsible if they knew that the dogs were dangerous but still allowed the animals on their property. (For more about landlord liability, see “Landlord Liability for Tenants’ Dogs.”)

Depending on the situation and state law, other property owners may be liable for injuries caused by dogs they’ve allowed on their property. In an Illinois case, for example, a dog that was tied up next to a store entrance bit a girl on her way inside. Based on Illinois law, the court said that the company that owned the store could be liable for the injury if it could have predicted that the dog might bite someone but didn’t take reasonable precautions to prevent it. Because Illinois courts have recognized all dogs have a tendency to bite children, the victim didn’t have to show that the proprietor knew this dog had bitten someone before. (Nakhla v. Singer-Shoprite, Inc., 500 A.2d 411 (N.J. Super. A.D. 1985).) In an Illinois case, however, a court held that under the law in that state, a stable owner wouldn’t be liable for an injury caused by a client’s dog on the property unless the owner knew that the animal had vicious tendencies. The court explained that Illinois law presumes that dogs are harmless and only imposes liability when there’s evidence that the animals have vicious tendencies. (Lucas v. Kriska, 522 N.E.2d 736 (Ill. Ct. App. 1988).)

Dogs at Work

If employers allow employees to keep bring dogs to work for the employees’ convenience, courts will generally find that the employer is not keeping the dog for purposes of liability. But the results will probably be different if the dog is there for the employer’s benefit, or if the employee lives with the dog on the employer’s property.

If you're hurt at work by your employer’s dog, your legal options may be limited. For example, a Massachusetts court held that an employee wasn’t allowed to sue her employer after being bitten by his dog at work. Her only recourse was a worker's compensation claim, even though the employer had brought the dog to the office for his own convenience. (Barrett v. Rodgers, 408 Mass. 614 (1990).)

Speaking With a Lawyer

This is a complicated area of the law. When someone other than a dog’s owner is facing a lawsuit over injuries caused by the animal, the question of liability will depend on local statutes, how state courts interpret those laws, and the particular circumstances involved. Whether you’re the injured person, the owner, or someone who happened to have the dog in your care or on your property, it would be smart to talk to a lawyer to help protect your rights. An attorney experienced in personal injury or animal law can explain how the law applies in your situation and—if you’re the one being sued—what defenses you might have.

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