Pet ownership is on the rise. According to the 2023-2024 survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 66% of U.S. households own a pet, up from 56% in 1988. Dogs are the most popular pet—over 65.1 million U.S. households include at least one dog.
Dog ownership comes with great joy and great responsibility. Dog owners are responsible for taking care of their pets and they are legally responsible for preventing their pets from injuring other people or causing property damage. And yet about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Whether you own a dog, or have been hurt by someone else's pet, it's important to understand how Missouri law applies to your situation.
Missouri dog owners are automatically responsible for bite injuries and property damage caused by their pets. Unlike some states, Missouri doesn't use the "one-bite" rule, which requires a bite victim to show that the owner knew (or should have known) that their dog was dangerous. It's also not necessary to prove that the incident was caused by the owner's carelessness.
Instead, Missouri dog-bite victims can receive compensation for their losses by showing they were:
In addition to paying damages to the victim, Missouri dog owners can also be fined up to $1,000.
(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 273.036 (2023).)
Missouri's strict liability statute only applies to dog bites and property damage. But Missouri's common law gives victims who've suffered non-bite injuries two options for recovering damages from the dog's owner.
In order to win a negligence lawsuit, the injured person typically has to show that:
An owner's duty includes being prepared for typical canine habits, like running around when off-leash and showing excitement by jumping on people. When deciding if an owner was negligent a court will also consider what the owner knew about their dog's specific habits.
For example, an owner could be negligent if they let their dog off-leash at the park, and it runs past someone at high speed and trips them. In that situation, the owner is more likely to be found negligent if they knew their dog had a habit of running at top speed when off-leash.
Usually a victim has to prove that an owner's behavior was irresponsible, and the owner can argue that they behaved reasonably under the circumstances. Take the scenario above where a dog tripped someone by running past them at high speed. If the owner can show that their dog had always been very calm and slow-moving, they could argue that it wasn't negligent to allow the dog off its leash at the park.
But Missouri uses a rule called negligence per se that, in certain situations, automatically deems an owner's behavior negligent. Negligence per se applies when:
For example, many municipalities have ordinances requiring owners to keep their dogs on leashes in public places. If a dog is able to injure someone because its owner ignored a leash law, then the owner is negligent per se. In other words, the owner's decision to ignore the leash law is, by itself, enough to prove that they behaved irresponsibly.
If an owner is aware that their dog has a particularly dangerous tendency, then they can be held strictly liable for non-bite injuries caused by that behavior.
Missouri courts have stressed that, for strict liability to apply, the dog's behavior has to be "abnormally" dangerous. The dog has to display behavior that:
Courts assume that things like running around or jumping on people are typical behaviors for dogs. Abnormally dangerous behavior is much more serious, like a tendency to attack people without being provoked.
But keep in mind that a dog's behavior can be abnormally dangerous without being malicious. For example, a large dog that knocks someone over and scratches them might be trying to hurt that person, or just trying to play. The legal question is whether the owner knows their dog's habits put people at risk, not why the dog behaves the way it does.
Even in Missouri and other states with strict liability dog-bite laws, owners aren't liable for every single dog bite. Dog owners can raise defenses that may reduce or eliminate their liability, including arguing that the victim was trespassing or provoked the dog.
Missouri, like many states, does not offer the same legal protections to trespassers as it does to other people who are injured by dogs.
First, the state's strict liability rule does not apply in cases where the victim was on the owner's property unlawfully.
Second, property owners don't have the same legal obligations to trespassers as they do to people who have a right to be on their property (like invited guests and mail carriers). The law generally assumes that someone who trespasses does so at their own risk, and is responsible for their own injuries if they get hurt.
Property owners should keep in mind that this rule isn't absolute. Children, for example, aren't treated the same way as other trespassers, because the law assumes they aren't as capable of recognizing danger or understanding that they should stay off of private property. An owner could be found negligent if their carelessness allows a child to wander onto the property and get attacked by the owner's dog.
(Wilson ex rel. Wilson v. Simmons, 103 S.W.3d 211, 219 (Mo. Ct. App. 2003); Fields v. Henrich, 208 S.W.3d 353, 361 (Mo. Ct. App. 2006).)
Missouri owners can also avoid liability by showing that their dog was provoked. "Provocation" includes when a victim is teasing a dog or deliberately trying to hurt it. But it's possible for a victim to provoke a bite by accident. For example, if a child runs over a dog while playing, and the dog responds by biting, the owner could argue that the bite was provoked.
(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 273.036 (2023); Bush v. Anderson, 360 S.W.2d 251 (Mo. App. 1962).)
In some cases, a dog owner and dog-bite victim may share blame for the incident.
Under Missouri's comparative negligence rule, victims in negligence cases will have their compensation reduced in proportion to their own responsibility for the accident. (Beal v. Kansas City S. Ry. Co., 527 S.W.3d 883 (Mo. Ct. App. 2017).)
The state's strict liability dog-bite law uses the same approach, allowing owners to argue that a victim bears some responsibility for their own injuries. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 273.036 (2023).)
So, let's say an owner lets their dog run around off-leash at the park. The dog knocks over a bicyclist who was trying to ride and send a text message at the same time. A court could find the owner partially responsible for the accident (especially if the owner was violating a leash ordinance).
But the court could also find that the victim's distracted riding makes them 50% responsible for their own injuries. The victim's compensation would then be reduced accordingly.
Each state has its own deadlines—called "statutes of limitations"—for filing civil lawsuits.
Like many states, Missouri uses the same statute of limitations for dog-bite cases as it does for other personal injury cases. A victim has five years from the date of their injury to file their lawsuit.
(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 516.120 (2023).)
Victims who miss this deadline will almost certainly have their case dismissed by a Missouri court. If you have questions about the timing of your lawsuit, or how the statute of limitations applies to your situation, a local attorney may be able to help.
Learn more about the statutes of limitations in your state.
Missouri makes it a crime to keep a dangerous dog. State law defines a dog as "dangerous" if it:
Criminal penalties for owners of dangerous dogs. The owner of dangerous dog could be found guilty of crimes ranging from a class B misdemeanor to a class D felony. Criminal consequences are most severe in cases where:
Impounding and euthanizing dangerous dogs. In addition to these criminal consequences, owners of dangerous dogs risk losing their pets. The police or animal control will seize and impound any dog that:
An impounded dog will be euthanized unless the owner files an appeal and convinces a court that the dog should be released.
Defenses for owners and their dogs. Missouri law recognizes that there are times when a dog might be justified in biting someone. If a dog bites because it's been provoked, it can't be euthanized and its owner can't be charged with a crime.
Dogs and owners are also usually protected from legal consequences if the bite victim was committing a crime. Keep in mind, though, that a dog doesn't get a free pass to bite anyone who has technically broken the law. Owners can still face criminal charges, and dogs can be impounded and euthanized, in cases where the bite victim was:
(Mo. Rev. Stat. § 578.024 (2023).)
If you've been hurt by a dog, or someone has accused your dog of causing harm, you should consider consulting with an attorney. The financial stakes in a dog-bite case can be high—the Insurance Information Institute estimates that there were around 18,000 dog-related injury claims in 2021, with a total value of $881.9 million. Just as importantly, these cases can be emotionally draining for everyone involved.
A lawyer can help by walking you through your legal options, negotiating on your behalf, and representing your interests in court. You can learn more about how to find the right lawyer for your situation, and about when dog owners might be liable for bites and other injuries.