Tennessee has a complex dog bite statute that imposes strict liability in some situations and "one bite" liability in others. In this article, we'll talk about how the law applies in each situation. We'll also look at the time limits on filing a Tennessee dog bite lawsuit in court, and we'll discuss the defenses that the statute makes available to dog owners who are facing a lawsuit in the state.
People who have been injured by dogs in Tennessee have one year to file a personal injury lawsuit in the state's civil courts, seeking compensation from the dog's owner. In most cases, this one-year filing "window" opens on the date of the injury and closes one calendar year later. Tennessee courts will almost certainly refuse to hear a case that is filed after the one-year statute of limitations has expired.
Tennessee's dog bite law appears in section 44-8-413 of the state's statutes. It imposes a mix of strict liability and "one bite" liability depending on the facts of the situation, and it also names several defenses available to dog owners. We'll look at the liability here and examine the defenses in the next section.
The dog bite law in Tennessee allows an injured person to hold a dog's owner strictly liable if:
In these situations, the dog's owner is liable without any showing of fault -- in other words, regardless of whether the owner knew the dog would act aggressively -- unless one of the defenses allowed in the statute applies.
The strict liability rule applies to injuries dogs cause to people who are in a public place or who have permission to be on a third party's private property. However, it does not apply to injuries dogs cause to people who are on private residential, farm, or non-commercial property that the dog's owner owns, rents, leases, or is occupying with the owner's permission. In these situations, the "one bite" rule applies, which means that the injured person must show that the dog's owner knew -- or should reasonably have known -- that the dog would act aggressively in order to hold the owner liable for damages.
Tennessee's distinction between strict liability and "one bite" liability can make for some tricky situations. For instance, suppose that you are attending a neighborhood "block party" when you are bitten by a neighbor's dog. If you were in the street or on your own property, the strict liability rule probably applies. However, if you were on the dog owner's property or if you and the dog owner were both invited into a third neighbor's yard, the "one bite" rule probably applies.
Tennessee dog owners have several possible defenses available when faced with a lawsuit. These defenses include lack of knowledge (in one-bite cases), provocation, trespassing, confinement, and working dog behavior.
The lack of knowledge defense applies only in one-bite situations. In this defense, a dog owner would argue that he or she didn't know and could not have known the dog would act aggressively. This knowledge is required to prove liability in a one-bite case.
In a strict liability situation, no knowledge on the part of the dog's owner is necessary to establish liability. Tennessee law states that dog owners are not responsible for injuries their dogs inflict if the injured person provoked the dog, if the dog was confined in a kennel or cage, or if the injured person was trespassing or committing another crime or tort when the injury occurred.
The law also does not apply to working dogs, like police or rescue dogs, who are "in the line of duty" at the time the injury occurs.