If you're a dog owner in Texas, or if you're thinking of filing a dog-bite injury claim, you'll want to understand the state's rules on liability for harm caused by a canine. In this article, we'll explain:
Unlike most states, Texas has no civil statute that spells out a dog owner's civil liability for damages when their animal bites or otherwise injures someone. But Texas's state courts have ruled that there are two situations in which owners can be found liable for injuries caused by their dogs.
Liability under the "one-bite" rule. Like many states, Texas follows a version of the so-called "one-bite" rule. This means that owners who know (or should know) that their pets might be dangerous are strictly liable if their dog attacks someone. Once an owner is on notice that their dog has dangerous or aggressive tendencies, they're responsible for any bites or other injuries it inflicts. The owner is liable even if they acted responsibly and took precautions to protect people from their pet. (Marshall v. Ranne, 511 S.W.2d 255 (Tex. 1974).)
Liability based on negligence. Owners who have no reason to think their dogs might be dangerous can still be sued for negligence. To prove liability in a negligence case, a victim has to show that:
For example, an owner could be found negligent if they let their dog roam off-leash, and the dog runs into and knocks over a pedestrian.
In each state, laws called "statutes of limitations" set deadlines for filing lawsuits in civil court. Different deadlines apply to different kinds of cases. Most states don't have a specific statute of limitations for dog-bite lawsuits. Instead, these kinds of claims almost always fall under the umbrella of "personal injury" or "tort" cases.
The Texas personal injury statute of limitations states that personal injury lawsuits (which includes dog-bite lawsuits) must be filed in court "not later than two years after the day the cause of action accrues." In other words, a victim has two years from the day that they're injured to sue the dog's owner. (Tex. Civ. Prac. and Rem. Code Code § 16.003 (2023).)
If you don't get your Texas dog-bite lawsuit filed before the two-year deadline passes, you'll almost certainly lose your right to hold the dog owner liable for your injuries.
In certain very serious dog-attack cases, the animal's owner could face criminal charges as well as civil liability.
A Texas dog owner can only be charged with a felony if their pet has attacked without being provoked and either killed or seriously injured the victim. But even that isn't enough to bring criminal charges. The owner has to be responsible for the attack for one of two reasons:
(Tex. Health and Safety Code § 822.005 (2023).)
According to Texas law, a "dangerous dog" is a canine with a history of violent or threatening behavior. Specifically, a dog might be designated as dangerous if it either:
Even if a dog does one of these things, though, it won't be designated as dangerous if:
(Tex. Health and Safety Code § 822.041 (2023).)
Texas dog owners have several potential defenses to a dog-bite lawsuit.
Owners can argue that the one-bite rule doesn't apply. An owner sued under Texas' one-bite rule can defend themselves by:
If a victim can't prove the owner knew their dog might be dangerous, then the owner can't be held strictly liable. Instead, the victim would have to prove that the owner was negligent, which requires additional evidence of irresponsible conduct by the owner.
Owners can argue that the victim was negligent. Under Texas' comparative negligence system, the amount of damages a plaintiff can receive is reduced in proportion to their responsibility for the incident. Plaintiffs recover nothing if they are more than 50% responsible for their own injuries. Victims can share responsibility in a dog-bite case if, for example, they carelessly startled or provoked the animal. (Tex. Civ. Prac. and Rem. Code Code §§ 33.01-03 (2023).)
Owners can argue the victim was trespassing. A trespasser is anyone who doesn't have either permission or a legal reason (for example, delivering the mail) to be on someone else's property. Texas property owners aren't strictly liable for injuries their dogs inflict on trespassers. A trespasser can recover damages only if they can show that the owner's actions were particularly bad—for example, letting their dog hurt someone intentionally or through gross negligence. (Marshall v. Ranne (511 S.W.2d 255 (Tex. 1974); Mayer v. Willowbrook, 278 S.W.3d 901 (Tex. App. 2009).)
Other defenses can also apply depending on the facts of the case.
Whether you've been hurt by someone's dog or someone is accusing your pet of an attack, it's important to know the basics of how the law deals with dog bites and other injuries caused by pets. You can read more about how comparative negligence works in dog-bite cases, and about the factors that go into deciding when owners are responsible for the actions of their pets.
If you have questions about how Texas's dog-bite laws apply to your situation or are simply interested in getting help from a professional, consider reaching out to an attorney with experience handling animal cases.