We’ve all heard that dogs are man’s best friend, that pets can brighten our days and lengthen our lives. But what happens if your pet misbehaves? Worse, what happens if your dog injures someone?
Common law followed the “one-bite” rule, which held a dog owner liable for injuries caused by the animal only if the owner knew or should have known that the animal was likely to bite. In other words, the owner would be liable only if the dog had bitten someone in the past. However, that standard has been altered by statute. Currently, 36 states and the District of Columbia have adopted strict liability standards. Strict liability may be imposed through either statutes or case law and means that a dog owner is held liable for injuries even if the owner did not know that the dog was likely to bite. In other words, an owner is liable for the first bite. There are some limits to strict liability laws: for example, if an animal is provoked, injured, or teased by a person, then the dog’s owner may not be liable for any harm that person suffers as a result. Some states also carve out exceptions for dogs in law enforcement and dogs that attack intruders in their own homes.
Only Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming do not have some form of strict liability, although D.C. and four other states – Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia – impose strict liability only if a dog causes an injury while it is “at large” or off the leash.
Recent years have seen an increase in reports of dog-related injuries, with more than 18,000 liability claims filed in 2017 accounting for an average payout hovering near $40,000 (up from just under $20,000 in 2003). Experts attribute this increase to growing medical costs. Further, the category of “dog-related injury” is expansive and includes not only dog bites but other types of injuries as well, such as the kinds of harm that would result for chasing a bicycle or jumping on a passerby. In fact, if your dog darts in front of a car and the car is damaged in the encounter, you may be liable for repairs.
Dog owners who are concerned about the possibility of paying damages for their pet’s misbehavior may wish to look into liability insurance and/or to familiarize themselves with their state’s pet liability laws. While owning a pet involves many delightful surprises, paying a dog bite victim’s medical bills shouldn’t be one of them.
Kathleen Davies is a Staff Writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.