Tennessee Dog Bite Laws

A dog owner's liability for bites and other injuries in Tennessee, time limits for filing a dog bite lawsuit in Tennessee courts, and more.

If you're a Tennessee dog owner, or you've been injured by someone else's animal, the state's dog bite injury liability rules and related laws may be of particular interest to you. In this article, we'll discuss:

  • the deadline for getting a dog bite lawsuit started in Tennessee's courts
  • the legal rules surrounding a dog owner's responsibility after a bite or similar incident in Tennessee, including a breakdown of the state's "dog bite statute", and
  • legal defenses a dog owner might raise in response to a Tennessee personal injury lawsuit over a bite or similar injury.

Tennessee's Statute of Limitations for Dog Bite Lawsuits

All civil lawsuits are subject to strict limits on how much time can pass before the case must get started. In every state, laws called statutes of limitations set different time limits for different kinds of cases, but the penalty for missing the filing window is the same: the court will almost certainly dismiss your case, unless a rare extension of the filing deadline is called for.

In most states, dog bite (or dog-caused injury) claims fall under the larger umbrella of "personal injury," so the statute of limitations for personal injury cases typically applies. In Tennessee, the state's statute imposing dog owner liability for bites (Tenn. Code Ann. section 44-8-413) specifically declares that a civil lawsuit brought "pursuant to this section" is governed by the state's statute of limitations for personal injury actions, which is found at Tenn. Code Ann. section 28-3-104. This law sets a one-year deadline for the filing of all lawsuits seeking a legal remedy for "injuries to the person."

So, in the context of a dog bite lawsuit, that means you'll need to file your personal injury complaint in the appropriate Tennessee court within one year of the date of the bite or other injury.

Tennessee's Dog Bite Statute

Under Tenn. Code. Ann. section 44-8-413, the owner of a dog has a duty to:

  • keep that animal under reasonable control at all times, and
  • keep it from "running at large."

A person who fails to fulfill this legal duty is subject to civil liability for any damages suffered by anyone injured by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in or on the private property of another.

Section 44-8-413 goes on to say that the owner may be held liable regardless of whether the dog has shown any dangerous propensities or whether the dog's owner knew or should have known of the dog's dangerous propensities. So, under this law, a dog owner is held "strictly liable" if the stated conditions are met. "Strict liability" does not require the injured person to prove that the dog's owner acted with negligence or any fault beyond what the statute requires. If the elements listed in section 44-8-413 are met, the owner is liable for the claimant's damages.

Note that anyone who is "temporarily harboring, keeping or exercising control over the dog" is not an "owner" for purposes of this law, and cannot face strict liability if the animal injures someone.

According to the statute, "running at large" occurs when:

  • a dog goes uncontrolled by the owner upon the premises of another, without consent, or
  • a dog goes uncontrolled by the owner "upon a highway, public road, street or any other place open to the public generally."

Note that this statute can't be used to hold a dog owner liable if:

  • the animal is a police or military dog
  • the injured person was trespassing on the dog owner's property
  • the injury occurred while the dog was protecting its owner or another innocent party
  • the dog was securely confined in an enclosure when the injury occurred, or
  • the injured person provoked, harassed, or otherwise disturbed the dog.

The "Residential Exception" and the "One-Bite Rule" in Tennessee

If a bite occurs on property owned by the dog owner, the claimant must prove the elements of the "one bite" rule, namely that the dog owner "knew, or should have known, of the dog's dangerous propensities," according to Tennessee courts. This exception is sometimes referred to as the "residential exclusion."

Learn more about strict liability and the "one bite" rule.

Defenses to Dog Owner Liability in Tennessee

Though the applicability of a claimed defense will depend on the specific circumstances in which the bite or other injury occurred, typically if the injured person provoked the dog, the animal's owner might not be liable for the claimant's damages. And if the claimant was trespassing on the animal owner's property, the owner may also avoid liability for any losses resulting from a bite or other animal-caused injury. But note that while these are listed defenses to "strict liability" in Tennessee, under section 44-8-413, if the dog owner's negligent or intentional conduct was the legal cause of the claimant's injuries, there could still be civil liability.

If you find yourself involved in a dog bite claim in Tennessee—either as a dog owner or as someone who suffered a bite or other injury—it may be time to discuss your situation with a personal injury lawyer.

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