Every state has its own set of rules for situations where one person's dog bites someone else. In this article, we'll examine the liability rules that apply to Indiana dog bite cases, including when a dog owner will be liable for injuries caused by their animal, and some potential defenses a dog owner might raise in response to a dog bite injury claim.
Section 15-20-1-3 of the Indiana Code discusses a dog owner’s potential civil liability for dog bites (it doesn’t apply to other injuries caused by a dog).
It’s important to note that, for practical purposes, the statute only applies to situations in which a dog bites a mail carrier, police officer, or other person who is carrying out their duties under state law, federal law, or U.S. postal regulations. It does not cover situations in which an ordinary private citizen is bitten by someone else’s dog. However, an ordinary citizen who is bitten by a dog in Indiana might be able to sue based on Indiana’s common-law “one bite” rule (more on this in the next section).
Now onto the specifics of the law. Section 15-20-1-3 says that a dog owner can automatically be held liable for injuries stemming from a dog bite incident as long as:
In these situations, the dog’s owner may be liable even if the dog has never bitten anyone or acted aggressively before (but again, the person who was bitten must have been carrying out some legal duty under state or federal law.)
Indiana courts have held that a person bitten by a dog may sue the dog’s owner for damages relating to the bite (including medical bills, lost income, and “pain and suffering”). However, Indiana usually follows the “one bite” rule for dog bite cases, which typically means that the dog’s owner can only be held liable if the owner knew -- or should have known -- that the dog was likely to bite or to act aggressively.
The owner’s knowledge of the dog’s aggressive behavior might be proven in court in different ways. For instance, the person who was bitten might try to demonstrate that the owner knew the dog had bitten someone in the past, or that the owner knew the dog had acted aggressively toward people before.
Indiana’s “one bite” rule can also be thought of as a “negligence” rule. In other words, the question the court will try to answer is “Did the owner fail to use reasonable care to prevent the dog from injuring the plaintiff?” When an owner knows a dog bites or is aggressive, it is assumed the owner will take reasonable steps to prevent the dog from biting or acting aggressively toward people.
Speaking of lawsuits, learn about Indiana’s time limits for filing your case: How long do I have to file a dog bite lawsuit in Indiana?
A dog owner might also be charged with a crime in Indiana in certain dog bite scenarios. Section 15-20-1-4 of the Indiana Code states that an owner can be convicted of a misdemeanor if:
The owner may be convicted of a felony if the injuries result in death.
Unlike a civil claim filed by the injured person directly, a criminal charge is brought by the local or state prosecutor’s office. The facts must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the penalties may include imprisonment, fines, probation, community service, or other responsibilities.
If a dog owner is sued for injuries caused by a dog bite incident, two defenses the owner might be able to raise are “comparative negligence” and trespassing.
In a "comparative negligence" defense, the dog owner
argues that the injured person was partly or entirely responsible for
his or her own injuries. For instance, an injured person who was bitten
after provoking a dog may be found partly at fault for the incident.
Indiana's "modified" comparative fault rule allows an injured person to
recover some damages as long as the person was no more than 50 percent
to blame for causing the underlying incident. Learn more: What if I am partly at fault for my dog bite injuries in Indiana?
In a "trespassing" defense, the dog owner argues that the injured person was on the owner's private property without permission. Indiana law limits homeowner liability for trespasser injuries. But remember, if the person was carrying out a legal duty or delivering the mail when they were bitten, Indiana's dog bite statute will allow the person to recover damages from the dog owner, even if they did not explicitly ask for permission to be on the property.