Can You Sue a Dog Owner for Bite Injuries?

A look at a dog owner's liability when their animal bites someone or causes some other type of injury.

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Whether you've been injured by someone else's dog, or you're a dog owner who wants to understand how liability typically works if your animal hurts someone, this article covers some basics. Here's a snapshot:

  • A dog owner can often be held legally and financially responsible if their dog bites or otherwise causes injury to a person, but the laws that dictate liability vary from state to state.
  • An injured person's options might include filing a claim with the dog owner's homeowner's insurance company, or filing a personal injury lawsuit over the matter.
  • It's important to decide whether a lawsuit is your best option--this decision depends factors like the extent of your losses and the strength of your case.

A Dog Owner's Liability Is Usually Based on State Laws

A dog owner can be held financially responsible when their dog's behavior leads to injuries or property damage, but the details of that liability—and what will ultimately need to be proven in court—varies from state to state.

In some states, the dog owner is subject to "strict liability," meaning that the dog owner's carelessness or other fault does not need to be established if the dog bites someone. Liability is almost automatic. Still, in these states, a few questions usually need to be resolved before the dog owner will be liable—such as whether the person who was bitten was lawfully on the property where the bite occurred, and whether they did anything to provoke the dog. (Later on we'll discuss defenses that might be available to a dog owner in response to a dog-bite injury claim.)

Other states follow a "one bite" rule, where the focus is on:

  • whether the owner knew or should have known (based, for example, on the animal's past behavior) that their pet might bite or behave aggressively, and
  • whether, in light of that knowledge, the owner took proper precautions to protect people from the animal.

Get the details and state-specific information on "one bite" and strict liability rules in dog-bite cases.

And finally, no matter what a particular state's laws might have to say when it comes to a dog owner's legal obligations and liability, if a dog owner's negligence causes or contributes to their animal biting or otherwise injuring someone, the owner will usually face liability.

An Injured Person's Options After a Dog Bite

When you're hurt by someone else's dog, you typically have two potential avenues for getting compensation: an insurance claim or a personal injury lawsuit.

Filing an insurance claim with the dog owner's insurance company. This option assumes that there's a liability insurance policy in play. Usually that means the dog owner has a homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance policy that might apply to the bite incident. If so, you can file what's called a "third party claim" to get compensation for your injuries and other losses.

Filing a personal injury lawsuit in court against the dog owner. If there's insurance coverage that applies to the bite incident, it would still come into play if the dog owner is ordered to pay you "damages" in the rare event that your case goes to trial. The insurance company would pay any court award, up to the policy limits. If there's no insurance that covers the bite, if your case is successful, you'll need to hope that the dog owner has sufficient assets to pay the court-ordered damages award.

Negotiating a Settlement in a Dog-Bite Injury Case

Keep in mind that, even if you end up taking your dog-bite case to court and getting the lawsuit process started, an out-of-court settlement is the most likely outcome. Settlements can occur at any time on the personal injury case timeline.

It can make sense to handle these kinds of negotiations yourself (for example, if the dog's owner has admitted fault and there are only minor disagreements about compensation). But if things are more complicated, or you've been seriously injured, it probably makes sense to consult with an attorney.

An attorney will not only be able to help you decide how much compensation you can reasonably expect, but will also have experience negotiating settlements with insurance companies and other lawyers.

The amount you're likely to receive in a settlement is closely related to how strong your case would be if you took it all the way to a trial. Factors that influence the strength of your case and the likely amount of a settlement include:

  • The nature of your damages. Damages like medical bills and lost income are easier to calculate for settlement purposes, and to explain to a jury. It's more difficult to translate the pain and suffering caused by a dog attack into a dollar amount. But if you've suffered extensive physical injuries, or the attack was particularly violent or distressing, it may be easier to convince a jury to provide compensation for the mental and emotional impact.
  • Whether the owner has acknowledged responsibility. A dog owner's legal responsibility is sometimes obvious, and the only dispute will be over how much money the owner should pay the victim. But owners (and their insurance carriers) can often raise defenses that make it more difficult for a victim to argue that they are entitled to significant compensation. We'll discuss some of those defenses below.
  • Your state's approach to dog-attack liability. It's usually much easier to win a case (and therefore easier to negotiate for higher compensation) under a strict liability standard. If you have to prove negligence, or that the owner knew their pet was dangerous, your case could be much more complicated.

Is a Dog-Bite Injury Claim Worth It?

From a legal standpoint, a dog owner may very well be liable for your injuries after a bite or other incident, but from a practical standpoint, you need to ask yourself whether pursuing a legal remedy will really be worth the time and effort.

If you were nipped on the hand and had a puncture wound patched up at the ER, you might want to think twice about going to the time and hassle of making an insurance claim, not to mention the wisdom of filing a lawsuit.

Another factor to weigh is insurance coverage. If the dog owner has a liability policy that applies to the bite incident, you've got a built-in guarantee that there's money available to compensate you. So, if you've suffered significant injuries and other losses, and the dog owner's homeowner's insurance applies to the bite incident, then pursuing compensation might be a good idea.

Is There a Time Limit for Making a Dog-Bite Injury Claim?

Your state has a personal injury statute of limitations that sets a limit on the amount of time an injured person can wait before filing their case in the state's civil court system. These laws apply to all kinds of lawsuits, including those over dog-bite injuries.

If you're thinking about filing a lawsuit after a dog-bite incident, you need to pay attention to the statute of limitations deadline and how it applies to your situation. Even if you're confident you'll receive a settlement, you always want to have the option of taking the matter to court, even if it's only for added leverage during the injury settlement negotiation process.

Are There Defenses to a Dog-Bite Injury Claim?

There are a number of situations in which a dog owner's potential liability for bites and other injuries might be limited, or eliminated altogether. In most states, these defenses are spelled out in the same laws (statutes) that dictate how and when a dog owner might be liable for injuries caused by their animal. Here are a few examples:

  • when the person who was bitten had no legal right to be on the property where the incident occurred (the dog-bite victim was trespassing, for example)
  • if the injured person teased or otherwise provoked the dog in the moments prior to the bite, and
  • if the injured person's own negligence or carelessness played a part in causing the bite or other incident.

Learn more about common defenses to dog-bite injury claims and how an injured person's own negligence might affect their injury case.

Can a Dog Owner Face Criminal Charges After a Bite?

Depending on the law in the state where the bite occurred, the circumstances of how the bite happened, and key factors like the dog's "dangerous propensities," a dog owner might face criminal charges when their animal bites or otherwise injures someone. Regardless of the specifics of state statutes, criminal liability becomes a real possibility in situations where a dog owner encourages their animal to attack someone, and serious injuries result.

Learn more about criminal penalties for owners of dangerous dogs.

Getting Help With a Dog-Bite Injury Claim

A dog-bite injury can lead to more questions than answers, and if your injuries are serious, putting your potential case in the hands of an experienced legal professional can be critical.

A personal injury lawyer will be familiar with the rules for dog owner liability in your state, can explain your options for getting compensation from the dog owner (or an insurance company), and will put your best case together to ensure the best result. Learn more about how to find the right personal injury attorney for you and your case. You can also use the features on this page to connect with an injury lawyer near you.

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