Pennsylvania Dog Bite Injury Laws & Owner Liability Rules

When is the owner liable for dog bite injuries in a personal injury claim or lawsuit in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania has several laws that might affect a dog bite case. In the sections below, we'll look at the deadlines for filing a dog bite lawsuit in the Pennsylvania court system. Then, we'll discuss Pennsylvania's dog bite liability statute and that state's status as a "strict liability" jurisdiction when it comes to dog bite cases. Finally, we'll examine some defenses that a dog's owner might raise in court when faced with a dog bite injury claim.

Deadlines for Pennsylvania Dog Bite Lawsuits

Like every state in the country, Pennsylvania law includes a personal injury statute of limitations that sets a deadline on the amount of time that an injured person has to file an injury case with the state's civil court system. In Pennsylvania, all personal injury cases -- including dog bite cases -- must be filed within two years of the date the injury occurred.

If the case is filed after the two-year deadline has expired, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear it. So, it's important to understand and abide by the statute of limitations.

Dog Bite Law in Pennsylvania

Dog bite cases in Pennsylvania are governed both by state statutes and by case law. According to Pennsylvania's Dangerous Dog Laws, 3 P.S. 459, a dog is a "dangerous dog" if:

  • the dog has injured a person, without provocation, on public or private property,
  • the dog has killed or injured a domestic animal without provocation, while off the owner's property,
  • the dog has attacked a human being without provocation, or
  • the dog was used to commit a crime.

In addition to any of the above elements, the dog must also have a history of attacking either humans or domestic animals, or a "propensity" for attacking either humans or domestic animals without provocation. Pennsylvania's dog confinement and housing law holds dog owners liable for damages if they fail to keep their dog in the house or yard, on a leash, or "under the reasonable control of some person." The dog does not have to have been labeled a "dangerous dog" in order for this rule to apply.

Strict Liability Dog Bite Law in Pennsylvania

In Miller v. Hurst, 302 Pa. Super. 235, 448 A.2d 614 (1982), the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that if a dog owner is found to have violated Pennsylvania's dog confinement law, the owner is liable for any injuries that result, even if the owner had no way to know that the dog would act aggressively or had ever acted aggressively before.

Similarly, in Commonwealth v. Hake, 738 A.2nd 46 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1999), the court held that the dog's owner is liable if the dog injures a person without provocation, on public or private property, even if the dog has no history or propensity of attacking people or other animals. What both these cases have in common is the application of "strict liability." In "strict liability" dog bite states, a dog's owner is responsible for injuries the dog causes, even if the dog has never bitten or acted aggressively before, and even if the owner had no idea the dog would bite or act aggressively.

Defenses in a Pennsylvania Dog Bite Case

A Pennsylvania dog owner typically has two defenses to a dog bite claim: provocation and trespassing.

Pennsylvania's dog bite laws specify that in order for the owner to be held liable for injuries, the dog must have caused injury "without provocation." If the dog owner can show that the injured person provoked the dog, the owner may not be held liable.

In addition, an owner may not be liable if the injured person was trespassing on the owner's property at the time of the bite. Section 459-507-A of the Pennsylvania code specifies that Pennsylvania's dog bite laws do not apply if the injured person was committing a "willful trespass" at the time of the injury. (Other examples of limited property owner liability for trespasser injury also exist.)

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