Pennsylvania Dog Bite Laws

A dog owner's legal responsibility for bites and other injuries in Pennsylvania, dog bite lawsuit filing deadlines, and more.

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If you've been bitten by someone else's dog in Pennsylvania, or you're a dog owner and want to understand your legal responsibilities, you might want to know about the state's laws on dog-bite injury liability. In the sections that follow, we'll discuss some of Pennsylvania's key laws on:

  • Pennsylvania's liability rules when it comes to a dog owner's financial responsibility for bites and other injuries and how a dog owner's negligence might affect the case
  • the state's laws on "dangerous" dogs
  • the deadline for filing a dog bite lawsuit in Pennsylvania courts, and
  • some common defenses a Pennsylvania dog owner might raise when faced with a personal injury lawsuit over an animal-caused injury.

Pennsylvania's Dog Bite Liability Laws

Dog bite cases in Pennsylvania are governed by both statutes (laws passed by the state's General Assembly) and case law (rules arising from court decisions).

First, according to Pennsylvania's statutes, whenever a dog bites or otherwise injures someone, the animal's owner is financially liable for the cost of all medical treatment related to the injury. No proof of fault is required here. But it's important to note that this law does not make the owner responsible for other damages stemming from the incident, like pain and suffering and lost income. That, however, doesn't mean a Pennsylvania dog owner is always off the hook for these kinds of losses—that's where case law comes in. (3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502 (2022).)

Pennsylvania Case Law on Dog Owners' Negligence

Pennsylvania courts have set out rules for suing for bites and other injuries when that harm results from the dog owner's negligence. That means proving that the animal's owner:

  • knew the dog had "unmistakable vicious tendencies," and
  • failed to take reasonable steps to properly control it.

Pennsylvania's courts have held that a dog can demonstrate vicious tendencies without necessarily biting someone, but also that a single previous bite doesn't automatically lead to the conclusion that the dog is vicious. (Deardorff v. Burger, 606 A.2d 489 (1992).) Courts will also generally find that dog owners were negligent if they violate the Pennsylvania law requiring that the animal be restrained at all times. (3 Pa. Stat. § 459-305 (2022); Miller v. Hurst, 448 A.2d 614 (1982).)

If a negligence-based lawsuit succeeds, the dog owner could be held legally responsible for the full spectrum of the injured person's losses, which can include medical bills and compensation for non-financial effects like "pain and suffering."

The Crime of "Harboring a Dangerous Dog" in Pennsylvania

In addition to the civil liability described above, a dog owner or keeper can face criminal charges for "harboring a dangerous dog" if the dog:

  • has attacked or severely injured a person without provocation, killed or severely injured a domestic animal without provocation while off the owner's property, or been used to commit a crime, or
  • has a history of attacking people and/or domestic animals without provocation, or has a propensity to attack human beings and/or domestic animals without provocation, or both.

Harboring a dangerous dog is classified as a "summary offense" (a low-level crime), and is punishable by a fine of at least $500. In addition, the dog owner must meet a number of requirements, including:

  • registering the dog with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
  • keeping the dog confined or in a proper enclosure
  • posting a clearly visible warning sign that there is a dangerous dog on the property
  • paying any court-ordered restitution to a victim of a dangerous dog
  • having the dog spayed or neutered and microchipped, and
  • obtaining an insurance policy to cover the owner for any personal injuries inflicted by the dog or a surety bond payable to any person injured by the dog.

If an owner of a dangerous dog fails to meet these requirements, or if a dangerous dog, through the intentional, reckless or negligent conduct of the dog's owner or keeper, attacks a person or a domestic animal, the dog owner could face misdemeanor charges. In addition, the dog could be confiscated and euthanized. (3 Pa. Stat. §§ 502-A to 507-a (2022).)

It's important to note that a dog owner could face criminal charges and civil liability based on the same incident. Even if the owner is convicted of a dog-related crime, an injured person could still sue for damages in civil court.

Pennsylvania Statute of Limitations for Dog Bite Cases

Like every state, Pennsylvania sets legal limits on the amount of time that can pass before a plaintiff must file a civil lawsuit in the state's courts. In Pennsylvania, all personal injury lawsuits—including cases stemming from dog bites—must be filed within two years of the date the injury occurred (that means the day on which you were bitten or otherwise harmed by the dog). (42 Pa. Consol. Stat. § 5524 (2022).)

If you try to file your lawsuit more than two years after the date of your injury, the court will almost certainly dismiss it, unless a rare exception applies to effectively extend the deadline. (Learn more about the personal injury statute of limitations.)

Defenses in a Pennsylvania Dog-Bite Case: Provocation and Trespassing

A Pennsylvania dog owner may turn to a number of legal defenses in response to a dog bite claim, including arguments that:

  • the injured person provoked the dog, and the dog only bit the person as a result of that provocation, or
  • the injured person was trespassing or otherwise had no legal right to be in the location of the incident.

And if the injured person is found to bear some level of legal responsibility for the harm they've suffered, Pennsylvania's "comparative negligence" rule will apply. Under that rule, if the injured person's share of fault is 50 percent or less, any court award will be reduced in direct proportion to the percentage of fault. But the victim cannot receive any compensation at all if they are found to be more at fault for their injuries than the owner of the dog. (42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 7102 (2022).)

Getting Help With Your Pennsylvania Dog-Bite Case

If you find yourself on either side of a Pennsylvania dog bite claim—as the animal's owner or as someone who suffered an injury—it could be time to discuss your situation with a lawyer. You can use the features on this page to connect with a qualified attorney in your area, or you can learn more about how to find the right personal injury lawyer for you and your case.

And if you're facing criminal charges related to a dog bite or other injury, a criminal defense attorney can explain your options and help protect your rights.

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