When Dogs Bite Veterinarians or Other Animal Workers

It’s often difficult for animal workers to sue pet owners for a bite or other attack—but it depends on the facts and the law in your state.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

In many dog-bite cases the victim doesn't know the dog or the owner, and is taken completely by surprise. Understandably, the law places a heavy responsibility on pet owners to control their animals and protect the general public. But how does the law work in situations where bite victims are animal workers who have agreed to groom, board, or care for the dogs that attacked them? In this article we'll discuss:

  • the rules that make it more difficult for animal workers to sue over dog bites
  • the exceptions that can make a successful legal claim more likely
  • how states' "strict liability" dog-bite laws affect an animal worker's legal options, and
  • other legal limits affecting dog-bite claims by animal workers.

People Who Work With Animals Accept Some Risks as an Occupational Hazard

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 their injuries, the pet owner might have one or more legal defenses to help them avoid liability.

One of these defenses is that the victim understood there was a danger of getting hurt, but voluntarily took the risk anyway. This is known as the "assumption-of-risk" defense.

Courts in some states apply this defense when dogs bite veterinarians during treatment. After all, vets should understand that dog bites are an occupational hazard. Because they accept that risk as part of their work, they may find their lawsuits thrown out if they sue pet owners for bites or other injuries.

Using the same logic, some 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.

Exceptions to the "Assumption-of-Risk Defense"

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 injuries inflicted by their pet if:

  • the owner had failed to inform the attack victim of a particular hazard that went beyond the normal risk of working with animals, like a dog's vicious temper, or
  • the vet or groomer hadn't yet accepted the risk—for example, if the attack occurs in the waiting room before the vet or groomer has agreed to work with the animal.

Can You Use the Assumption-of-Risk Defense in Your State?

Most states in the U.S. have so-called "strict liability" dog-bite laws. These laws make owners liable for most dog bites even if they weren't being careless and didn't know that their animals could be dangerous. These laws often include a specific list of exceptions that can shield an owner from liability if the person who was bitten:

  • provoked the dog
  • was trespassing when the attack happened, or
  • was engaged in other illegal behavior that put them in harm's way.

So, what happens if "the person who was bitten had assumed the risk" isn't on the list of exceptions to a state's strict-liability rule? Could the defense still work?

The answer varies by state.

For example, California's courts have ruled that a dog owner can raise the assumption-of-risk defense if a vet or other animal worker sues under the state's strict-liability dog-bite statute. That's true even though there's no "assumption-of-risk" exception explicitly written into California's law.

But courts in several other states—including Arizona and Ohio—have ruled that the only defenses available to a dog owner are the ones specifically listed in the dog-bite statute. In states that take this approach, owners can't raise an assumption-of-risk defense even if it seems like it would make sense based on how the incident happened.

Are There Other Limits on Lawsuits Brought by Vets And Other Animal Workers?

Some states have other rules that make it more difficult—and sometimes impossible—for animal workers to file successful lawsuits against pet owners. Courts in these states have decided that when vets, kennel workers and groomers agree to take custody of a pet, they are also assuming at least some responsibility for the behavior of that animal. That means animal workers who are bitten by pets in their care can't use strict liability to place all of the blame on the pet owner.

So, what happens in these states if an animal worker sues a pet owner over an attack? It depends. In some states, like Wisconsin, the animal worker could sue and the question would then become how to divide responsibility between the owner and the animal worker. In other states, like Massachusetts, a dog-bite lawsuit would be completely barred.

Not all states limit animal workers' legal rights in this way. For example, the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that the state's strict-liability standard still applies if an animal attacks someone who has taken temporary responsibility for it. So, for example, if a pet dog bites its groomer, the groomer's lawsuit against the dog's owner would be evaluated using strict liability.

Learn More About How to Handle a Dog-Bite Claim

As you probably noticed while reading this article, there are a lot of legal issues to keep in mind if you're involved in a dog-bite case. If you want to know more, you can continue reading about the laws covering dog bites and other injuries inflicted by pets—including how liability is determined, how victims are compensated, and the most important ways that dog-bite laws differ from state to state. If you have specific questions about your situation, you might want to consider reaching out to an attorney who specializes in dog-bite or animal law.

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