South Dakota relies on a combination of negligence rules and a statutory "one bite" law to handle dog bite injury cases in the state. Here, we'll talk about those rules, and we'll also look at the state's deadlines for filing personal injury lawsuits. We'll finish with a look at some of the defenses available to dog owners who are faced with an injury lawsuit in South Dakota.
South Dakota's statute of limitations sets a deadline for the filing of any personal injury lawsuit in the state's civil court system, and a dog bite claim would fall under that umbrella. An injured person typically has three years from the date the injury occurred to file a lawsuit in court. If the case is filed after the three-year deadline has passed, the court will almost certainly refuse to hear it. So it's crucial to understand and comply with the statute of limitations as it applies to your case.
In Blaha v. Stuard, 640 N.W.2d 85 (S.D. 2002), the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that dog bite claims may be brought under either one of two legal theories: the "one bite" rule or traditional negligence-based fault principles.
The "one bite" rule allows an injured person to hold a dog's owner liable for injuries if the dog's owner knew or should have known that the dog would act aggressively. Often, this knowledge is proven in court with evidence that the dog has bitten someone or tried to bite someone in the past -- hence the name "one bite" rule.
However, a prior bite is only one way to show previous aggression. Growling, snarling, lunging, or pouncing behavior may also be enough to show the dog has acted dangerously in the past. If the owner knew or reasonably should have known about these behaviors, he or she may be held liable if the dog actually causes injuries.
Under the negligence rule, the injured person must show that the dog's owner or another person had a duty to use reasonable care to prevent the dog from causing injuries but failed, and the injured person was harmed as a direct result of that failure.
Evidence of knowledge of prior aggressiveness isn't required in a negligence case, but it may apply to the question of what "reasonable care" was required for a particular dog. For instance, a dog known to be aggressive might need to be muzzled or kept in a separate, locked area, while a dog known to be friendly might not need such interventions.
A dog owner facing a dog bite lawsuit in South Dakota might raise a number of defenses.
In a "one bite" case, a common argument is that the dog's owner didn't know (and couldn't reasonably have known) that the dog would act aggressively -- for instance, because there is no evidence of any prior aggressive or dangerous behavior. Because the "one bite" rule requires such knowledge before a dog's owner can be held liable, a dog owner who can successfully demonstrate that he or she had no such knowledge will likely avoid liability for a dog bite or other injury caused by a dog.
To limit or eliminate liability, a dog owner might also argue that the injured person was partly or wholly responsible for the injuries. This argument is known as one of comparative fault.
South Dakota uses a "pure" comparative fault rule, which means that the dog owner's liability will be reduced by the percentage of fault assigned to the injured person. For instance, suppose that a person is knocked down by a neighbor's dog after the person took the dog off its lead, without the owner's knowledge. In court, the injured person is found to be 70 percent liable for the injuries, and the dog's owner is found to be 30 percent liable. The owner will owe the injured person only 30 percent of the total damages award.
Finally, if the injured person is trespassing on the dog owner's property when the injury occurs, the dog owner's liability may be reduced under the rule that limits property owner liability for trespasser injuries in many cases. Often, the success of this defense turns on whether or not the property owner could have reasonably foreseen or predicted the trespassing would occur.