Currently about half of the United States has dog-bite statutes which hold the owner accountable if their dog attacks someone or causes injury. These statutes hold the owner responsible even if the owner had no reason to believe the dog was dangerous. Dog-bite statutes are called “strict liability” statutes because the injured person does not have to prove that the dog’s owner necessarily did anything wrong.
These law are in place because of the idea that anyone who owns a dog should be responsible for any damage it causes, even if the owner was careful with the dog. According to California Civil Code Section 3342, “the owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.”
To win a lawsuit under this statute, the injured person does not have to prove the dog owner was negligent or did anything wrong. The injured party only needs to prove the following:
- The injured person was attacked or otherwise injured by a dog
- The person being sued is the owner of the dog
- The victim did not provoke the dog to attack
- The victim was behaving peaceably in a place they had a right to be
In some states, this statute covers all dog-inflicted injury, even if the dog did not bite. In one case, the plaintiff won because the dog ran at the plaintiff and caused him to injure himself. (Morris v. Weatherly, 488 N.W.2d 508 (Minn. App. 1992).) As long as the dog makes some action at the injured person, the plaintiff will have a case.
In other states, like California, the statute is limited to bites, so it does not apply if an injury is caused by a dog acting playfully. In one case, a german shepherd puppy sat in front of a three-wheeled recreational vehicle, causing the teenage driver to swerve to avoid hitting the dog and crash into a barbed-wire fence. The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the state’s strict liability dog-bite statute did not apply and make the owner liable for the injury, because the statute only covers times when a dog bites, kills, wounds, worries, or chases a person. (Holden ex rel. Holden v. Schwer,, 495 N.W.2d 269 (Neb. 1993).)
In most states the dog-bite statute does not affect other rules of liability, meaning that someone who is injured be a dog can choose to sue under the strict liability statute, a common law theory, or a negligence theory.
A dog owner may have a defense if the plaintiff:
- provoked the injury from the dog
- knowingly took the risk of being injured by the dog
- was trespassing
- was breaking the law
- was unreasonably careless which contributed to the injury
Whether or not these defenses apply depend on the state’s specific strict liability statute, or if the state instead has the one-bite statute.