A strict liability dog bite law is a law that imposes liability on a dog owner for injuries caused by his dog, regardless of whether or not the owner had reason to believe that the dog was capable of aggressive behavior. More than half of U.S. states have enacted strict liability dog bite statutes, and some city and county governments have enacted similar laws even though they are located in states without a state strict liability dog bite statute. Dog owners in these jurisdictions are burdened with significantly more liability than dog owners in other jurisdictions.
What the Victim Has to Prove
To win a dog bite claim, the victim generally has to prove that:
- The dog injured the victim
- The defendant is the owner of the dog
- The victim did not provoke the dog
- The victim was acting peacefully and not trespassing at the time of the attack
Beware – these elements can vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Types of Injuries Covered by Strict Liability
The liability faced by dog owners is not necessarily limited to injuries caused by an actual bite. Under certain circumstances a dog owner can be held liable even if the dog to made no physical contact with the victim. Such circumstances include indirect injuries caused by intimidation (a victim falls down a flight of stairs in his haste to escape an aggressive dog, for example). Some jurisdictions apply strict liability to actual attacks but apply a negligence (owner carelessness) standard to other types of dog-related injuries.
Defenses to Strict Liability
Even where a dog owner is subjected to strict liability for a dog bite injury, a number of potential defenses can be available in a particular jurisdiction, including:
- Provocation: Although sufficient provocation will release the defendant from liability even in most strict liability jurisdictions, the victim bears the burden of proving that he didn’t provoke the dog.
- The veterinarian’s defense: A veterinarian who “provoked” a dog by, for example, administering an injection, is likely to find his claim difficult to win on the grounds that he assumed the risk of injury by agreeing to treat the dog.
- Trespassing: If the victim was trespassing at the time of the attack, the dog owner might be released from strict liability. The dog owner could still lose the case, however, if the victim proved that the dog owner was negligent. In some jurisdictions, a trespassing defense can defeat a dog bite claim even if the owner was negligent.
Handling a dog bite claim, whether as a defendant or a victim, can involve hidden legal minefields. Since the dog bite statutes of various jurisdictions are far from identical, you will need to understand the intricacies of the dog bite statute(s) that apply(ies) in your particular jurisdiction before reaching any conclusions about the status of your case. Since statutes and ordinances can be difficult to read, and since their legal implications can be subtle, you should retain an experienced local dog bite lawyer to assist you.