North Carolina Dog-Bite Laws

A dog owner's liability for bites and other injuries in North Carolina, the deadline for filing a dog-bite lawsuit in state court, and more.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

North Carolina law covers everything from a dog owner's liability for bites and other injuries, to the deadline a bite victim must meet if they want to file a lawsuit. Whether you're an owner, or you've been injured by someone else's pet, make sure you know what the state's rules mean for you.

When North Carolina Dog Owners Are Strictly Liable

Under North Carolina law, an owner is strictly liable for injuries inflicted by their dog if:

  • they allowed the dog to run at large, or
  • the animal is a dangerous dog as defined by North Carolina law.

"Strict liability" means the owner is automatically liable, and cannot escape fault for injuries by claiming lack of knowledge that the dog might bite, or that all reasonable precautions were taken to prevent the injury. In other words, fault (or the perceived absence of fault) plays no part in the dog owner's liability.

Dogs Running at Large

If an owner "intentionally, knowingly, and willfully" violates the state's prohibition against dogs "running at large," and someone is injured as a result, the owner will be strictly liable for those injuries. "Running at large" means the dog is out at night and is not accompanied by the owner or anyone else. This law only applies to dogs that are more than six months old.

In addition to being held strictly liable for injuries and property damage, an owner who violates this law can also be charged with a misdemeanor.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 67-12 (2023).

Dangerous Dogs

Owners of "dangerous dogs" are strictly liable for injuries and property damage caused by their pets. Under North Carolina law, a "dangerous dog" is one that:

  • has previously killed or severely injured a person
  • is trained or kept for the purpose of dog fighting, or
  • has previously been declared "potentially dangerous."

The first two definitions of dangerousness are straightforward, but determining whether a dog is "potentially dangerous" is a little more complicated. For a dog to be declared potentially dangerous, the local animal control authorities must conclude that it has:

  • severely injured a person by biting them
  • killed or severely injured a domestic animal while off its owner's property, or
  • approached a person "in a vicious or terrorizing manner," seemingly ready to attack, while off its owner's property.

In addition to being held strictly liable for injuries and property damage, owners of dangerous dogs can face criminal penalties. The owner of a dangerous dog can be charged with a misdemeanor if they:

  • fail to keep the animal securely confined on the owner's property, or
  • take the animal off their property without making sure it's securely leashed and muzzled.

Owners can face more serious misdemeanor charges if their dangerous dog attacks someone and causes physical injuries that cost more than $100 to treat.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 67.4.4 (2023).

Liability for Negligent Dog Owners in North Carolina

Even in situations where strict liability doesn't apply, it may still be possible for a dog-attack victim to hold the owner legally responsible. To do so, the victim has to prove that the owner was negligent.

North Carolina courts decide whether or not a dog owner was negligent by using a version of the so-called "one-bite" rule. Under this rule, an owner's responsibility for injuries caused by their pet depends on whether they knew (or should have known) that their dog might hurt someone. In North Carolina an owner is expected to know their dog could hurt someone based on:

  • The animal's past conduct. Previous instances of aggressive or vicious behavior should put an owner on notice that their dog might behave in the same way in the future.
  • The animal's breed or physical characteristics. For example, a North Carolina court ruled that the owners of a Rottweiler should have known that their dog might be dangerous because of its size, strength, and temperament. (But keep in mind that a court won't automatically hold owners to a higher standard just because of the breed of their dog. If a plaintiff argues that an owner should have known their dog was dangerous because of its breed, the owner can respond by presenting evidence that the breed's bad reputation isn't deserved.)

(Thomas v. Weddle, 167 N.C. App. 283 (N.C. Ct. App. 2004).)

In some states, an owner who is on notice of the danger posed by their pet is strictly liable if the animal hurts someone. North Carolina's rule works a little differently. A North Carolina owner who knows (or should know) their dog might be dangerous is required to take reasonable precautions to protect people from the animal. If they fail to do so, and this allows the dog to hurt someone, then the owner will be found negligent.

An owner who is found liable (either based on strict liability or on negligence) will be required to pay damages. These damages can include compensation for both economic losses (like the victim's medical bills) and less tangible effects like pain and suffering.

Defenses to Dog Owner Liability In North Carolina

North Carolina law recognizes that, in some situations, it might be excusable--or even justified--for a dog to attack someone. Under state law a dog and its owner are not legally responsible for an attack on someone who:

  • was willfully trespassing or committing another tort
  • was committing or attempting to commit a crime
  • was tormenting, abusing, or assaulting the dog, or
  • had previously tormented, abused or assaulted the dog.

Whether these defenses apply will depend on the facts of the case. For example, a bite victim who accidentally wandered onto an owner's property could argue that they were not "willfully" trespassing and should therefore be able to hold the owner liable.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 67‑4.1(b)(4) (2023).

The North Carolina Statute of Limitations for Dog-Bite Lawsuits

Each state has laws called statutes of limitations that set strict limits on how much time can pass before someone files a lawsuit. Different kinds of cases are subject to different time limits, but the price you'll pay for missing the filing window is the same: the court will almost certainly dismiss your case as "time-barred," unless a rare extension of the filing deadline is called for.

North Carolina doesn't have a statute of limitations that applies specifically to dog-bite (and other dog-injury) cases. Instead, these cases fall under the umbrella of the state's statute of limitations for personal injury cases. Under this rule, if you want to file a lawsuit over a dog attack you must do so within three years of the date of the bite or other injury.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-52 (2023).

Next steps in Your North Carolina Dog-Bite Case

If you've been hurt by a dog, or your own pet has been accused of an attack, it's important to understand your legal options. It may be helpful to discuss your situation with an attorney who handles dog-bite cases. A lawyer who understands North Carolina's dog laws can explain how those rules apply to your case and help you decide how to proceed.

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