Tennessee Dog-Bite Laws

A dog owner's liability for bites and other injuries in Tennessee, 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

Tennessee law covers everything from when a dog owner can be liable for injuries caused by their pet, to the deadline a bite victim must meet if they want to file a lawsuit, Whether you're a dog owner, or you've been injured by someone else's pet, it's important to understand how Tennessee's dog laws apply your situation.

Civil Liability for Tennessee Dog Owners

Under Tennessee law there are two main ways dog owners can be held responsible for bites and other injuries inflicted by their pets:

  • strict liability under the state's dog-injury statute, and
  • liability under the so-called "one-bite" rule.

Strict Liability for Owners Who Don't Control Their Dogs

Since 2007, Tennessee has had a statute that requires dog owners to:

  • keep their pets under "reasonable control" at all times, and
  • keep their pets from "running at large."

According to the statute, "running at large" occurs when:

  • a dog goes uncontrolled by the owner upon the premises of another, without consent, or
  • a dog goes uncontrolled by the owner "upon a highway, public road, street or any other place open to the public generally."

If an owner doesn't comply with this law, and their dog injures someone, the owner is legally responsible for the victim's damages. This is a so-called "strict liability" statute. A victim just has to show that they were injured by the owner's dog because the owner violated the statute. A victim is not required to show that the owner knew the dog might be dangerous, or to show that the owner acted with negligence beyond what the statute requires. (Keep in mind, though, that owners can still offer defenses in these kinds of cases--we'll talk more about that in the next section.)

(Tenn. Code § 44-8-413 (2024).)

Liability Under Tennessee's "One-Bite" Rule

In addition to its strict liability rule, Tennessee also has a version of the so-called "one-bite" rule. Under this rule, owners can be held liable for injuries caused by their dogs if they knew (or should have known) that the dog had "dangerous propensities." This means that the dog has either injured people in the past, or shown that it has a tendency to try to injure people (for example, by attempting to bite or attack).

Tennessee's one-bite rule applies in two situations. There are very important differences in how the rule works depending on whether the victim is hurt on the owner's property or somewhere else.

If a dog injures someone while off its owner's property, and the owner knew the dog was dangerous, then the owner is automatically liable. There's no requirement to prove, for example, that the owner failed to control the dog or acted irresponsibly in some other way. In other words, owners of dangerous dogs are strictly liable for injuries their pets cause in public places, or on other people's private property.

If a dog hurts someone while on its owner's property, Tennessee's "residential exception" applies. This rule makes it more difficult for victims to hold dog owners liable. The victim must first prove that the owner knew (or should have known) that their dog was dangerous.

But even if the victim proves this, the owner won't automatically be held legally responsible. The victim still has to show that the owner is liable under Tennessee's premises liability rules, or because of another type of negligence. In other words, for injuries that occur on the owner's property, victims must prove both that the owner knew the dog was dangerous, and that the owner failed to act responsibly under the circumstances.

(Note that, in at least two cases, Tennessee courts have gone against the one-bite rule and applied a negligence standard instead. But it's probably not a good idea to rely on those opinions, since they're inconsistent with the vast majority of Tennessee cases that have looked at this issue.)

(Tenn. Code § 44-8-413 (2024); Searcy v. Axley No. W2017-00374-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 19, 2017).)

Defenses to Dog Owner Liability in Tennessee

Depending on the specific circumstances, a Tennessee owner could have a number of defenses against dog-bite liability.

For example, Tennessee's strict liability statute specifically exempts an owner from legal responsibility if the dog:

  • was securely confined in an enclosure when the injury occurred
  • hurts someone who was trespassing on the dog owner's property
  • causes the injury while protecting its owner or another innocent person, or
  • attacks someone who was provoking or harassing it.

Similar exceptions will generally apply in cases brought under Tennessee's one-bite rule. People who are hurt while harassing a dog, committing crimes, or trespassing will have a difficult time proving that the pet owner is responsible for the incident. In addition, it can be a powerful defense in one-bite rule cases for an owner to either:

  • argue that the plaintiff has not proven that the owners knew the dog was dangerous, or
  • provide their own evidence that the dog was generally calm and well-behaved.

Tennessee's Statute of Limitations for Dog-Bite Lawsuits

Civil lawsuits are subject to strict limits on how much time can pass between when someone is wronged and when they file a lawsuit. Each state has its own laws called statutes of limitations that set deadlines for filing different kinds of civil cases.

Tennessee uses the same one-year deadline for dog-injury cases as it does for other personal injury claims. If you try to start your case after this deadline passes, the court will almost certainly dismiss your case. (There are rare exceptions but you're better off making sure you file your case sooner rather than later.)

(Tenn. Code § 44-8-413 (2024); Tenn. Code § 28-3-104(a)(1)(A) (2024).)

Criminal Charges for Tennessee Dog Owners

In addition to civil liability, Tennessee can also impose criminal penalties on dog owners in certain situations. If an owner fails to control their dog, they can face misdemeanor or even felony charges if the animal:

  • goes onto someone else's property without that person's permission, or
  • wanders onto a public road or into other public places.

The severity of the criminal consequences depends on the seriousness of the dog's behavior. For example, if the dog is just trespassing, or only causes property damage, the owner can be charged with a misdemeanor and ordered to pay a fine. But if the dog seriously injures or kills someone, the owner (or the person responsible for the animal) can be charged with a felony and face years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

The penalties are even more serious if the owner either:

  • knew their dog was dangerous, or
  • has trained the dog to fight, attack, or kill.

In addition, dogs that injure people or damage property can be ordered to pay restitution to the victims. (Keep in mind that, even if a victim receives restitution from the dog owner, they are still allowed to file a civil lawsuit seeking damages.)

Finally, owners whose dogs are found trespassing on private property risk having their pets seized by animal control.

(Tenn. Code § 44-8-408 (2024).)

Next Steps in Your Tennessee Dog-Injury Case

If you find yourself involved in a dog-injury case in Tennessee—either as an owner or as someone who suffered a bite or other injury—you may want to discuss your situation with an attorney. A lawyer with experience handling these kinds of cases will be able to help you understand your legal options and decide on the best way to proceed.

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