Indiana Dog-Bite Laws

How dog-bite lawsuits work in Indiana, how the state handles dangerous dogs, and more.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Indiana has two sets of rules for deciding if an owner is legally responsible for an injury inflicted by their dog.

  1. A law in the state's civil code applies when dogs bite mail carriers or other government employees.
  2. The state's common law rules cover all other cases in which someone's been hurt by a dog.

The state also has laws covering when dog owners can be criminally liable, how local governments can deal with dangerous dogs, and more. Here's what you need to know if you own a dog or have suffered a bite in Indiana.

Mail Carriers and Government Employees: Strict Liability

Dog owners are strictly liable for bite injuries if:

  • the victim was acting "peaceably" and wasn't provoking the dog, and
  • the victim was in a place they were required to be in order to deliver the mail or perform another job for the state or federal government.

(Ind. Code § 15-20-1-3.) The most obvious situation where this law applies is when a dog bites a mail carrier who is delivering mail on the dog owner's property.

This is a so-called "strict liability" law because, when it applies, the dog owner is legally responsible for the victim's injuries even if they took precautions, or didn't have any reason to believe that their dog might be vicious or prone to bite.

Keep in mind that this law doesn't apply if:

  • the victim suffers an injury other than a bite, or
  • the victim wasn't "required" by their government job to be in the location where they were bitten.

So, for example, this law wouldn't apply to a mail carrier who tripped and sprained an ankle while running from an aggressive dog, or to a mail carrier who was bitten while walking across the owner's property after work.

Both of those situations would be covered by the rule we'll talk about next.

Liability for Negligent Dog Owners

In Indiana, most personal injury cases involving dogs come down to the common law standard of negligence. A dog owner in Indiana is negligent, and therefore responsible for a victim's injuries, if:

  • they knew about (or should have known about) a danger posed by their dog
  • they failed to take reasonable steps to protect people from that danger, and
  • the victim's injuries were a result of that failure.

So, when should an owner know about a danger posed by their dog? According to Indiana courts, there are two kinds of danger an owner is legally required to guard against.

Past behavior. First, an owner needs to protect people from any recurrence of violent or dangerous behavior that they know (or should know) their dog has exhibited in the past. Indiana law calls this kind of behavior "a known or dangerous propensity."

Take, for example, a dog that has snapped at people without provocation in the past. Assume the owner doesn't take steps to protect against biting—say, by muzzling the dog or keeping it on a very short leash on walks. The owner would be considered negligent if the dog bites someone as a result of the failure to protect against biting.

These rules also apply to injuries other than bites. For instance, an owner has a legal responsibility to restrain a large, friendly dog that likes to run full-speed and jump on people.

Natural propensities. Second, an owner needs to be aware of, and take reasonable care to protect people from, a dog's "natural propensities." Unlike a tendency to bite without provocation (a relatively rare behavior in domesticated dogs), "natural propensities" are things you could expect any dog to do in certain situations.

So, for example, let's say the owner of a well-behaved dog with no history of biting takes it to an extremely crowded street fair. Despite seeing that the crowd is dense and rowdy, the owner walks into it with the dog. The dog gets agitated and bites someone who happens to be close by. The bite victim could bring a negligence suit against the owner, arguing that a responsible owner would know that any dog might become agitated and act out in that situation.

Liability for Negligent Landlords

A version of these negligence rules applies to landlords whose tenants keep dogs on the property. A landlord can sometimes be liable for injuries inflicted by a tenant's dog, but only if:

  • they knew about the dog's dangerous propensity, and
  • had enough control over the property to be responsible for the dog's actions.

(Morehead v. Deitrich, 932 N.E.2d 1272 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010).) In this context, "control" is determined by whether the landlord or the tenant is in charge of who comes and goes and what happens on the part of the property in question.

For instance, if an apartment landlord knew that a tenant's dog had a history of biting, Indiana law would impose a duty to make sure the dog is properly restrained when it's in the building's common areas. But a landlord who rents a house with a fenced-in yard to the same tenant wouldn't be responsible for the dog's behavior while it's in the house or confined to the yard.

Defenses to Dog-Bite Lawsuits

Even an owner who acknowledges that their dog bit or injured someone could have several defenses under Indiana law.

Not Strict Liability

If a mail carrier or other government employee sues under strict liability, the owner could argue that the employee doesn't meet the requirements to bring a case using that law. If the owner wins that argument, then the employee would have to prove that the owner's negligence led to the incident in question.

Strict liability doesn't apply if the dog owner can show that the employee:

  • suffered an injury other than a bite
  • wasn't on the job at the time of the incident, or
  • wasn't acting "peaceably," or otherwise did something to provoke the dog.

(Ind. Code § 15-20-1-3.) If a judge rejects a strict liability claim, that doesn't necessarily mean that the dog owner wins—the plaintiff could still succeed with a negligence claim.

Contributory Fault: The Victim Caused Their Own Injuries

Every state has its own approach for deciding what to do if the owner and the victim share some responsibility for an injury inflicted by a dog. In Indiana, an owner who is sued for negligence can argue that their liability is reduced or eliminated by the state's "contributory fault" rules.

In Indiana, a judge or jury (whichever one is deciding the case) assigns the plaintiff and the defendant a percentage of the fault for the defendant's injuries.

The plaintiff can still recover damages from the defendant if they're up to 50% responsible. But the amount of their compensatory damages (to cover things like medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering) will be reduced in proportion to their own level of fault.

Plaintiffs who are more than 50% responsible, though, won't receive any money at all.

So, what can make plaintiffs fully or partially responsible for their own injuries in a dog attack?

Provocation. The most common way a victim can be partly or totally responsible is by doing something that a reasonable person should have known would provoke the dog, like teasing it, abusing it, or trying to attack or threaten its owner.

But provoking a dog doesn't automatically make someone fully responsible for everything that happens next. For example, a bite victim might be fully responsible for a minor bite if they startled a dog. Yet if the dog responded to that kind of innocent mistake by attacking and seriously injuring the victim, the owner would probably still bear most of the responsibility.

Trespassing. Unlike many states, Indiana doesn't make a trespasser fully responsible for their own injuries if they're attacked by the property owner's dog. If someone is on a dog owner's property without permission, that could allow the owner to argue that the trespasser shares some of the blame for their own injuries. But a dog owner in Indiana owes the same duty of reasonable care to a trespasser as they do to anyone else. (Martin v. Hayduk, 91 N.E.3d 601 (Ind. App. 2017).)

Indiana's Statute of Limitations for Dog-Bite Lawsuits

Every state has statutes of limitations that create deadlines for filing civil lawsuits. These deadlines vary from state to state, and also based on what the lawsuit is about.

Indiana's statute of limitations for personal injury cases is two years. So, if you've been hurt by someone's dog, you usually have two years from the date of the incident to file your case. Otherwise, you probably lose your right to sue.

Criminal Charges for Dog Owners

In addition to civil lawsuits, Indiana owners can sometimes face criminal charges for injuries inflicted by their dogs. An owner can be convicted of a misdemeanor if:

  • they "recklessly, knowingly, or intentionally failed" to take reasonable care to restrain their dog
  • the dog leaves the owner's property, and
  • the dog thereby injures someone with an unprovoked bite or other attack.

(Ind. Code § 15-20-1-4.) Owners face more serious penalties for repeat offenses, or if the victim is seriously injured. In the most serious cases—where the owner intentionally or recklessly failed to control their dog, and the dog then kills someone—the owner could be charged with a felony.

Unlike in civil cases, in a criminal case, the government must prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. (In a civil case it just has to be more likely than not that the defendant is legally responsible.)

Dealing With Dangerous or Aggressive Dogs

In Indiana dangerous dogs are regulated both by state law and by local rules.

State Laws

Unlike their owners, dogs can't be charged with crimes. But if the owner has committed one of the crimes covered above, there can be consequences for the animal too.

As long as there's probable cause to believe a crime has been committed, a dog can be impounded pending a court hearing to decide what will happen to it. Dogs can also be taken from their owners and impounded if they're being abused or neglected. (Ind. Code § 35-46-3-6.)

Based on the facts and on a recommendation from a veterinarian, a judge will decide whether the animal should be confiscated from its owner in order to protect the public (or for the dog's own well-being). If the owner is convicted of the crime they were charged with, then the court can also bar the owner from owning animals or put conditions on that ownership.

Local Rules

In addition to these statewide laws, municipalities in Indiana have their own regulations to protect the public from dangerous dogs and other animals. For example, Marion County (home to Indianapolis) has rules that apply:

  • to nuisance animals that bark excessively, trespass, or cause other disturbances in the community
  • when a dog or other animal bites someone, and
  • to aggressive or vicious dogs and other animals.

(Marion, Ind. Code of Ordinances, ch. 96, §§ 23, 24, 32.) Marion County, like other municipalities in Indiana, has a process for deciding when a dog's violent or threatening behavior requires the owner to take safety precautions or necessitates euthanizing the animal.

Handling a Dog-Bite Case in Indiana

Whether you own a dog in Indiana or have been injured by someone else's pet, it's important to know your legal rights and obligations. If you've been involved in a serious incident, or have specific questions about your situation, consider speaking with a lawyer. As we've seen, Indiana has a variety of state and local rules that could be important to your case. So you should make sure you know what to ask to find an attorney with the right experience to help.

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