It's every dog owner's nightmare: Your pet mauls someone, seriously hurting or even killing them. Although dog bites are fairly common, they rarely result in severe injuries or death. When they do, there's generally evidence that the owner failed to take precautions despite knowing that the animal presented a grave danger—usually because it was trained to fight or had already attacked or menaced people. In situations like that, dog owners will probably be liable to the injured people in civil lawsuits. They may also face criminal charges, under laws aimed at dangerous dogs or general criminal statutes.
At least 39 states in the U.S. have "dangerous-dog laws" laws that are intended to protect the public from dogs that are dangerous or vicious. In order to save the animals from being euthanized, owners must generally meet certain conditions, ranging from keeping the dog confined or muzzled to buying liability insurance or a special license. In many states, it's a crime to violate these restrictions, particularly if the dog hurts someone. Penalties range from fines to prison time for a felony. For example:
Even when dogs haven't been declared dangerous, their owners may face criminal charges if their animals attack someone. In Washington, for instance, it's a felony for the owner if the dog attacks someone and causes serious injury or death (Wash. Rev. Code § 16.08.100(3)). And while it's unusual, some local laws subject owners to criminal penalties when their dogs bite or injure. An appellate court in Nebraska upheld a conviction for violating an Omaha ordinance against harboring dangerous dog, after the defendant's dog seriously injured a guest in his house. The court held that the ordinance didn't violate the owner's constitutional due process rights, even though it didn't require that the owner knew about the animal's dangerous tendencies. (State v. Ruisi, 616 N.W.2d 19 (Neb. Ct. App. 2000).) Similarly, an appellate court in Kansas upheld the conviction of a woman in Topeka for violating a city ordinance making it a crime to permit a dog to attack someone. The animal had rushed from the woman's garage and bitten a mail carrier. (City of Topeka v. Mayer, 16 Kan. App. 2d 567, 826 P.2d 527, rev. denied (1992).)
When there's evidence that a dog owner gave a command or encouraged the animal to attack someone, courts may find the owner guilty of using the dog as a dangerous weapon to commit a crime like assault. Some examples:
In extreme cases, an owner may be charged with negligent homicide when a dog kills someone because the owner's failure to control the animal was reckless or criminally negligent. In Louisiana, the negligent homicide law states this explicitly (La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 14:32).
In a California case that made headlines at the time, a woman was initially convicted of negligent homicide and second-degree murder after her huge Presa Canario dogs attacked and killed a woman in the hallway of their apartment building. Evidence showed that the dogs had a history of threatening people, and that the owner had trouble controlling them. The California Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction (because it required proof that the owner had acted with a conscious disregard of danger to human life), but she didn't appeal her conviction for negligent homicide. (People v. Knoller, 158 P.3d 731 (Ca. 2007).)
In another second-degree murder case, the Kansas Supreme Court found that the state didn't have to prove that a dog owner knew her Rottweilers would attack and kill a child, only that she acted recklessly in a way that showed her extreme indifference to the value of human life. The evidence showed that the dogs had a history of menacing behavior, that the woman had "fostered" their aggressiveness by failing to train them properly, and that she had ignored the predictable consequences. (State v. Davidson, 987 P.2d 335 (Kan. 1999).)
If you're facing potential criminal charges because your dog has injured someone, consider speaking with a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced attorney can explain how the law applies to your situation, explore any defenses you might have, and help you protect your rights. If you're dealing with dangerous-dog proceedings, an animal law attorney should be able to help you do what's necessary to avoid civil or criminal penalties while keeping your dog safe.