Generally, a homeowner can be held liable for injuries incurred on his or her property. In certain situations, this liability can even extend to injuries to trespassers. Dog bites are no exception. Each state has its own laws and statutes with respect to homeowner liability for trespasser injury caused by dog bites, so it is important to consult the rules of your jurisdiction for specifics, but in this article we'll take a general look at key legal issues in these kinds of cases.
The first thing to figure out is whether or not the injured person is a trespasser because that will determine the standard of care (defined below) owed by the homeowner to that person.
A trespasser is someone who unlawfully enters the property or land of another. However, be aware that simply entering property without the landowner’s permission does not automatically make someone a trespasser. In some situations, the alleged trespasser may have implied permission to enter the property. For example, a door-to-door salesman may have implied permission to enter your property if you do not have a locked gate or a “no soliciting” sign.
What does “standard of care” mean? Standard of care is a legal term for the amount of attentiveness, prudence and caution that a reasonable person must exercise under certain circumstances. If the homeowner does not meet the standard of care appropriate to the situation, the homeowner can be deemed negligent, meaning he or she can be liable for any damages suffered by the injured person. (A homeowner's obligations in this context fall under the legal umbrella known as "premises liability.")
What is the standard of care owed to a trespasser? Generally, a homeowner owes a lower standard of care to trespassers than he or she owes to an invited guest or store patron.
The standard of care owed by a homeowner to a trespasser is “reasonable care”: a homeowner is not liable for a trespasser’s injuries if the homeowner exercises reasonable care in the maintenance of his or her property. To determine whether or not the homeowner acted reasonably, courts ask (1) what the average, reasonable homeowner would do under like and similar circumstances, and (2) whether the homeowner exercised at least that level of care.
What is “reasonable care”? A homeowner exercises reasonable care when he or she does not unnecessarily expose others to danger, while providing warning of hidden dangers which he or she knew or should have known about. This duty extends to reasonably foreseeable injuries caused by animals.
There is a major exception to this general standard of care when it comes to dog bite case. If the homeowner knew that the animal exhibited dangerous propensities, in most cases, the homeowner will be strictly liable for the trespasser’s injuries.
Strict liability means that the homeowner will be liable whether or not he or she was negligent, subject to certain defenses. Essentially, if you know that your dog is vicious or dangerous, you will usually be liable for any injury that is caused by your dog, whether or not you exercised reasonable care.
Dangerous propensity means that the dog exhibited characteristics that would indicate the animal is a threat to cause injury to a human being. If the characteristics are not directed at human beings, then the animal will not be considered dangerous. For example, just because a got into fights with other dogs does not mean that the dog exhibited dangerous propensities because there is no indication that the dog would likely harm a human.
A dog’s breed can also be considered in determining whether or not a dog had dangerous propensities. For example, knowing that a dog is part pit bull may be relevant in determining whether or not the dog is dangerous.
There is, however, a major exception to the exception. Even if the dog exhibited dangerous propensities, if the homeowner takes sufficient precautionary measures, the homeowner may not be liable. For example, if the homeowner chains the dog, and the trespasser, knowing of the dog’s presence and dangerous propensities, puts him or herself in harm’s way, the trespasser cannot recover any damages from the homeowner. This is a limited exception that only applies in rare cases, but when the facts line up the right way, the dog owner can be absolved of liability.