District of Columbia Dog Bite Injury Laws & Owner Liability Rules

When can a dog bite victim sue the dog owner in Washington DC? Learn about the personal injury liability rules and defenses here.

In this article, we'll look at some of the key laws that could affect a dog bite personal injury case in the District of Columbia. We'll start with the time limits for filing a dog bite claim in the district's civil court. Then, we'll look at D.C.'s dog bite laws and the defenses a dog owner might use to fight a dog bite claim in court.

Time Limits for Filing D.C. Dog Bite Lawsuits

The District of Columbia has a specific law, known as the  statute of limitations, which limits the amount of time an injured person has to bring a case to court after a dog bite occurs.

In D.C., the deadline for filing a personal injury lawsuit over a dog bite falls  three years  after the date the injury occurs in most cases, although specific facts can affect how the deadline is applied in some cases.

It's important to understand exactly when the statute of limitations expires in your dog bite case because failing to file your lawsuit in time can doom your case -- the court will almost certainly throw it out without hearing it.

Washington D.C. Dog Bite Laws

Unlike most of the 50 states, the District of Columbia does not have a specific dog bite statute. Rather, the district's laws prevent owners from letting dogs run "at large," without a leash or other control or supervision.

DC Statute 8-1812  states that "If a dog injures a person while at large, lack of knowledge of the dog's vicious propensity standing alone shall not absolve the owner from a finding of negligence."

In other words, if a dog that is running loose ends up injuring someone, the owner cannot win a case in court just by arguing that he or she had no idea the dog would cause injury. D.C. dog owners have a responsibility not to let their dogs run at large no matter how friendly they believe their dogs to be.

Washington, D.C. handles most dog bite cases according to the common legal concept of  negligence. Under this concept, an injured person must show that the dog's owner failed to use reasonable care to control the dog, and that this failure to use reasonable care caused the injury. Showing that a dog owner let a dog run at large can be used as evidence of negligence, but it does not automatically prove negligence -- and therefore, the dog owner's liability -- in a D.C. dog bite case.

D.C.'s negligence laws apply both to injuries caused by dog bites and injuries caused by other dog behavior, like pouncing. The injured person must show that harm occurred, but does not have to show that harm was necessarily caused by a bite.

Defenses to a Washington, D.C. Dog Bite Claim

Because dog bite cases in the District of Columbia are governed by negligence, the defenses a dog's owner might raise are negligence-related defenses. Two of the most common are comparative fault and trespassing.

"Comparative fault" refers to situations in which the injured person is partly or completely responsible for his or her own injuries. In dog bite cases, comparative fault arguments are sometimes but not always based on an argument that the injured person provoked the dog.

Washington, D.C. uses a form of comparative fault called "contributory negligence" or "contributory fault." Contributory fault is a complete bar to collecting damages: if the injured person contributed to his or her own injuries in any way, he or she is barred from collecting any damages from the dog's owner.

Another argument a D.C. dog owner might raise is that the injured person was trespassing, or present on the dog owner's property without permission, at the time of the injury.  Property owner liability for trespasser injuries  is limited in many ways, so an argument that the injured person was trespassing may limit or eliminate the dog owner's liability in an injury case.

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