At least 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States, nearly a million of whom require medical treatment. If you were injured by a dog bite, you may be able to file a lawsuit or seek a settlement from the dog owner or even a third party. Dog bite law is something of a legal salad — laws that vary from state to state co-exist with county and municipal dog bite and dog safety laws. Following is a description of the main legal approaches to dog bite claims in the United States.
More than half of the states hold a dog owner strictly liable for damages suffered by its bite victims. This means that if your dog bites someone, the victim does not have to prove that you knew your dog was dangerous, that you failed to leash the dog, or that you committed any other type of misconduct in order to hold you liable for his injuries. In most strict liability states, the only viable defense that the owner can assert is that the victim was trespassing at the time of the bite.
In some states you must prove negligence (carelessness) in order to successfully hold a dog owner liable for a bite. One way to do this is to show that the dog owner broke a dog safety law with respect to the dog. For example, some cities and counties have enacted leash laws that prohibit a dog owner from letting a dog run free outside the owner’s property. If the victim was bitten by an unleashed dog outside the owner’s property, the victim’s claim is likely to be successful unless the owner can successfully assert a defense. Other negligent acts by the owner, such as trying to walk too many dogs at once, could also form the basis for a negligence claim.
In negligence states, the dog owner can either prevail or reduce the amount of damages assessed against him by showing that the victim was partly to blame for the bite. This defense might be successful if, for example, the victim provoked the dog prior to the bite, or if the victim was a postal worker who attempted to pet a leashed dog while ignoring a “Beware of Dog” sign. In a few states the victim’s claim will be defeated if he was even one percent at fault. In other states the victim’s claim will be defeated only if he was at least 50 or 51 percent at fault (depending on the state); otherwise the victim can still recover damages but the amount will be reduced by his own percentage of fault.
The “One Bite” Rule
18 states have adopted a “one bite rule” that allows a victim of a dog bite to successfully sue a dog owner if the dog’s prior behavior put the owner on notice that the dog is likely to hurt someone and the dog owner failed to take appropriate precautions. Strictly speaking, an actual bite is unnecessary – even attempting to bite someone should be enough to put the owner on notice that the dog is potentially dangerous. Barking at strangers, on the other hand, is probably not enough to put the owner on notice.
If you have been the victim of a dog bite, or if you are a dog owner subject to a dog bite claim, the services of an experienced dog bite attorney could turn out to be invaluable to you.