If you're on either side of a dog bite claim in Missouri, whether as a dog owner or as someone who was injured, you want to have an understanding of the state laws that could affect your case. In this article, we'll look at Missouri's "dog bite statute," common defenses a dog owner might raise in response to a dog bite lawsuit, and more.
Missouri Revised Statutes section 273.036.1 says that where a dog owner's animal bites someone else, the owner is liable for the resulting injuries if:
the injury was the result of the dog bite
the injured person was on public property or was lawfully on private property, and
the injured person did not provoke the dog to bite.
The statute also states that an owner who is held liable for a dog bite must pay a fine of $1,000.00, in addition to paying any other damages that the injured person can prove in the case, such as medical bills or property damage.
Missouri's dog bite statute is a "strict liability" statute. This means that it applies even if the owner took reasonable care to restrain the dog or otherwise prevent the attack from occurring. However, any lawsuit under section 273.036.1 must be filed within the applicable time limits set by Missouri law. To learn more, see How long do I have to file a dog bite lawsuit in Missouri?
The Missouri statute specifically refers to dog bites, not to other injuries a dog might inflict. However, many other types of dog behavior, such as jumping on a person, can also cause injuries.
To recover damages for a non-bite injury caused by a dog, the injured person will usually need to bring a negligence claim against the owner of the animal. The injured person will have to show the court that the dog's owner failed to use reasonable care and that this failure led to the injuries.
In some dog bite cases, an owner might face criminal charges in addition to a civil lawsuit if a dog causes injury or death. Missouri Revised Statutes section 578.024 states that an owner can be convicted of a Class B misdemeanor for keeping a "dangerous dog." A "dangerous dog" is one that has bitten a person without provocation in the past and that bites a person without provocation a second time.
The criminal penalties for keeping a dangerous dog in Missouri become more severe if the dog's bite inflicts serious injuries. For instance, the owner may be convicted of a Class A misdemeanor if the second attack inflicts a serious injury. The owner may be convicted of a Class E felony if both the first known attack and the second attack inflict a serious injury, and the owner may be convicted of a Class D felony if the dog kills a person.
In any of these cases, an owner who faces criminal charges may also face a separate civil lawsuit for damages. Criminal charges are filed by the government prosecutor's office, and a conviction may include penalties including imprisonment or probation. By contrast, a civil lawsuit is filed by the injured person directly (or the injured person's estate in a wrongful death lawsuit if the person dies), and liability is addressed solely in terms of money damages.
If a dog owner is sued for injuries caused by the dog, the owner may raise one or more legal defenses against the claim.
If the case is a "strict liability" case based on a dog bite, the two most common defenses are provocation and trespassing. As we discussed above, Missouri's dog bite statute specifies that the injured person can only recover damages if they did not provoke the dog, and if they were on public property or lawfully on private property when the injury occurred. So, if the dog's owner can show that the injured person did provoke the dog or that the injured person was unlawfully trespassing on private property when the injury occurred, the dog's owner may have a successful defense against a claim brought under section 273.036.1.
In a negligence claim, the most common defense raised is that of "comparative negligence." Missouri law reduces the amount of damages an injured person can receive if the injured person was partly responsible for his or her own injuries. If the injured person was more than 50 percent responsible for his or her own injuries, the injured person will not be allowed to recover any damages at all. (To learn more, see What if I am partly at fault for my dog bite injuries in Missouri?)