Massachusetts Dog Bite Laws

Here's when a dog owner can be on the legal hook for injuries in Massachusetts.

In this article, we'll look at the state laws and legal principles that could come into play in a Massachusetts dog bite case. Whether you've been injured by a dog, or you're a dog owner who wants to understand your potential liability for bites and other injuries caused by your animal, read on for the details.

The Massachusetts Dog Bite Statute

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 140, Section 155 is often referred to as the "Massachusetts Dog Bite Statute." This law says that a dog's owner may be held civilly liable in certain situations where their dog injures another person. In order for the statute to apply:

  • the dog must cause personal injury or property damage, and
  • the injured person (or the person to whom the damaged property belongs) must not be trespassing, committing another tort, or provoking the dog at the time of the incident.

Under the Massachusetts statute, it does not matter if the dog has never acted aggressively before. If the dog causes injury or property damage, the owner may be held liable.

The law also applies to all injuries caused by a dog in Massachusetts, not just to bites. For instance, suppose that a pedestrian is walking in a public park when a dog jumps on her, knocking her to the ground and breaking her ankle. The pedestrian may sue the dog's owner for damages, even if the injury was not caused by a bite.

Negligence in Massachusetts Dog Bite Cases

Massachusetts' dog bite law is a "strict liability" statute, meaning that the statute applies even if the dog's owner took reasonable care to restrain the dog or to prevent it from harming people. For example, even if the owner took steps to secure their dog on a seemingly strong leash or chain, if the dog manages to get loose and bite a person, the dog's owner can be held liable for the resulting injuries.

Besides Chapter 140 Section 155, an injury claim over a dog bite may also be brought under Massachusetts' general rules for negligence. In a negligence claim, the injured person must prove that the injury resulted from the owner's failure to use reasonable care -- usually that means the owner failed to properly restrain or control the dog under the circumstances, and that failure led to the bite or other injury.

Because the Massachusetts statute covers all types of injuries inflicted by dogs, it is rare that a case is filed under the negligence rules instead of under the statute. However, a negligence claim requires the injured person to prove a slightly different set of facts, and it opens up a slightly different set of defenses for dog owners, so it's helpful to note which type of dog bite claim is being raised in court.

In both strict liability and negligence claims, remember to pay attention to how long you have to file a dog bite lawsuit in Massachusetts.

Criminal Liability for Massachusetts Dog Bite Claims

In Massachusetts, if a dog is involved in an attack on another person, the owner may be charged with a crime under the state's general criminal laws, especially if it appears that the owner encouraged or allowed the dog to attack another person.

For example, in a 2012 case, the owner of a pitbull set it loose during a street fight so that the pitbull would attack another participant in the fight. The dog bit the other person on the stomach. The court held that the dog's owner could be found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon for unleashing the dog.

Unlike a civil lawsuit filed under the dog bite statute, a criminal charge is brought by the local or state authorities through the prosecutor's office. The facts must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and penalties may include imprisonment, probation, fines, community service, or other responsibilities. In contrast, in a civil lawsuit, the dog owner's liability is expressed through damages that must be paid to the injured party as compensation for their medical bills and other losses.

Defenses to Dog Bite Claims

The Massachusetts dog bite statute provides three potential defenses a dog owner may raise: trespassing, provoking the dog, and committing another tort.

First off, if the injured person is present on private property without permission when the injury occurs, he or she might not be able to seek damages under the statute. But it's important to note that a person who is carrying out a legal duty on private property -- delivering the mail, for example -- is not "trespassing" even if they did not have the owner's express permission to be on the property. A person injured by a dog while carrying out a legal duty may still bring a dog bite claim.

Second, a person who is committing another tort (civil wrong) at the time the injury occurs may not seek damages under the statute.

Finally, an injured person may not recover under the dog bite law if he or she was "teasing, tormenting, or abusing" the dog and provoked it to attack. This defense is included in the dog bite statute, but it may also operate in a negligence claim. (See: What if I am partly at fault for my dog bite injuries in Massachusetts?)

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