Pennsylvania Dog Bite Laws

Details on dog owners' legal responsibilities in Pennsylvania, and what happens when their animals hurt someone.

If a dog attacks someone in Pennsylvania, its owner will have to pay the victim's medical costs. An owner who's been careless in controlling a vicious dog may also have to compensate the victim's other losses, as well as face criminal penalties. Read on for details.

Strict Liability: Medical Expenses Only

The majority of states in the U.S. have “strict liability” statutes that make dog owners responsible for most dog-bite injuries, even if the dog didn’t have a history of being aggressive or the owner wasn’t negligent. Under Pennsylvania’s limited version of this kind of law, anyone time a dog bites or attacks someone, the owner must pay all of the victim’s related medical costs. However, the law doesn’t make the owner responsible for other damages, like pain and suffering or lost income. (3 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 459-502(b)(1).)

Negligent Dog Owners’ Liability

If you’ve been hurt by someone else’s dog, you may have another way of getting compensation for your damages: by suing the animal’s owner for negligence (legalese for being unreasonably careless). Pennsylvania courts have set out some rules for what it takes to win a dog-related negligence case in the state. The victim must prove that the owner

  • knew the dog had “unmistakably vicious tendencies,” and
  • neglected to control it properly.

A dog might show vicious tendencies without actually biting anyone. At the same time, a single previous bite doesn’t necessarily make a dog vicious. (See, for example, Deardorff v. Burger, 606 A.2d 489 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1992).)

Courts will generally conclude that dog owners were negligent if they violated the state law that requires dogs to be restrained at all times (see 3 Pa. Stat. § 459-305; Miller v. Hurst, 448 A.2d 614 (Pa. Super. 1982)). This is also true if owners don’t meet the legal requirements for dealing with dangerous dogs (more on that below).

How Dog Owners Can Fight Back

Dog owners may have legal defenses when they’re sued for injuries their animals have caused. For instance, the owner may argue that the victim:

Under Pennsylvania’s “comparative negligence” rule, a victim who was more at fault than the owner won’t receive any compensation for the injury. But if the victim’s share of the blame was 50 percent or less, the compensation will simply be reduced in direct proportion to the percentage of fault. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102.)

Criminal Liability for Dangerous Dog Owners

A Pennsylvania dog owner could be charged with a “summary offense” (a low-level crime similar to a traffic ticket) for harboring a dangerous dog if the animal has a history of unprovoked attacks or vicious tendencies and has:

  • attacked or seriously injured a person without provocation
  • severely injured a domestic animal without provocation away from the dog owner’s property, or
  • was used to commit a crime.

An owner who’s found guilty of this crime will be fined (as much as $500) and will have to meet several requirements, including:

  • registering the dangerous dog and having a special microchip implanted in the animal
  • keeping the dog properly confined in an enclosure or muzzled and restrained
  • posting a conspicuous sign on owner’s property with a symbol that will warn children away
  • paying court-ordered restitution to a victim hurt by the dog, and
  • having the dog spayed or neutered.

Misdemeanor charges will follow if the owner doesn’t meet these requirements, or the dangerous dog attacks a human or domestic animal as a result of the owner’s intentional, reckless, or negligent actions. In addition, the animal will be destroyed. (3 Pa. Stat. Ann. §§ 459-502-A — 459-507-A.)

Speaking with a Lawyer

If someone is suing you over a dog bite or other injury that your dog supposedly caused, consider speaking with a personal injury lawyer. An attorney experienced in this area can explain how Pennsylvania law applies to your situation and what defenses you might have. If you’re facing criminal charges under the state’s dangerous-dog law, a criminal defense lawyer can help protect your rights.

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