As a general rule, owners of dogs, cats, and other pets are legally responsible (or “liable”) when their animals bite people or hurt them some other way. But when a victim sues to get compensated for the injuries, the pet owner might have one or more legal defenses to avoid liability. Under what’s known as the “assumption-of-risk” defense, the owner may argue that the victim understood there was a danger of getting hurt but voluntarily took the risk anyway.
Courts in some states apply this defense when dogs bite veterinarians during treatment. After all, most vets understand that dog bites are an occupational hazard. Because they accepted that risk as part of their work, they may find their lawsuits thrown out if they sue the pets’ owners for the injuries.
Using the same logic, courts have found that the assumption-of-risk rule extends to vets’ assistants, vet technicians, groomers, kennel operators, and others who work with animals as part of their employment (see, for example, Priebe v. Nelson, 39 Cal.4th 1112 (Cal. 2006)).
Even when the assumption-of-risk defense would otherwise apply, there may be exceptions under certain circumstances. For example, an animal’s owner might still be liable for the injuries if:
Most states in the U.S. have so-called “strict liability” dog-bite laws that make owners liable for most dog bites even if they were careless or knew that their animals could be dangerous. These laws often include specific exceptions. But almost all of those exceptions apply when the victim was provoking the dog, trespassing, or doing something else illegal.
Some courts—such as in California—have recognized that the assumption-of-risk defense applies when vets or other animal workers sue under a strict liability dog-bite statute, even though the law doesn’t specifically say that (see Nelson v. Hall, 165 Cal.App.3d 709 (Cal. 1990)). But in several other states—including Arizona and Ohio—courts have ruled that the only defenses are the ones specifically listed in the dog-bite statute, which means that owners may not use the assumption-of-risk defense to get out of their liability for the injuries (see Massey v. Colaric, 725 P.2d 1099 (Ariz. 1986) and Pulley v. Malek, 495 N.E.2d 402 (Ohio 1986)).
Aside from the assumption-of-risk rule, courts have found other ways to rule out lawsuits by vets and other animal workers who are bitten on the job. Someone who’s taking care of a dog may be just as liable as the legal owner in lawsuits based on dog-bite statutes, negligence, or the “one-bite rule.” Many courts have found that vets, vet technicians, groomers, and kennel operators should be considered the owners or "keepers" of dogs under their care—which means they don’t have the right to sue the animals’ legal owners for bites or other injuries that happened at the time. (See, for example, Armstrong v. Milwaukee Mut. Ins. Co., 549 N.W. 2d 723 (Wis. 1996) and Salisbury v. Ferioli, 730 N.E.2d 363 (Mass. Ct. App. 2000).)
Not all courts agree with this reasoning, however. Iowa’s Supreme Court has ruled that the definition of a dog owner in that state’s law (which includes “any person who keeps or harbors a dog”) refers to people who have permanent possession of the animals, not to temporary custodians like groomers (Collins v. Kenealy, 492 N.W.2d 679 (Iowa 1992)).