State Dog-Bite Laws: "One-Bite" vs. Strict Liability

Explanation of two common liability standards for dog owners, and a breakdown of the rules followed in each state.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

Laws determining a dog owner's liability for bites and other injuries caused by their pet vary from state to state, but there are essentially two basic rules: liability when the dog owner knew or should have known the dog might bite someone (often referred to as the "one-bite rule") and liability regardless of what the owner knew or should have known (often referred to as "strict liability").

In this article, we'll:

  • explain the difference between these two legal concepts, and
  • provide a snapshot of the dog-bite injury liability rules in each state.

The "One-Bite" Rule and Dog-Bite Injury Liability

Prior to the twentieth century, a dog owner was usually only held liable for injuries when their dog bit someone if the owner had reason to know the dog might bite. This was known as the "one-bite" rule because it generally meant that a dog was allowed "one free bite" before the owner would face legal trouble.

In modern times, the one-bite rule does not necessarily allow a dog one free bite. If an owner knows the particular breed is dangerous, or if the particular dog might be prone to biting because of its general character or some other factor, he or she could face liability for the dog's first bite.

The focus is on whether the owner knew or should have known that the dog might bite, and whether the owner took reasonable precautions based on that knowledge. For example, if a relatively aggressive dog recently underwent surgery and the owner did not warn a house guest not to pet the dog, the owner might be held liable if the house guest is subsequently bitten.

As a fault concept, the "one-bite" rule has much in common with (and often overlaps) the personal injury liability rule of negligence.

"Strict Liability" for Dog-Bite Injuries

Many states have enacted "dog-bite" statutes that create a form of "strict liability" for dog bites. Strict liability means that the defendant is held liable if a certain event occurs, regardless of whether the defendant could have done anything to prevent the event.

The typical strict liability dog-bite statute says that a dog owner is liable if his or her dog bites someone, regardless of whether the owner did anything wrong, as long as the injured person:

If a strict liability dog-bite statute applies, what the owner did or did not know about the dog prior to the bite is usually irrelevant. Note that strict liability dog-bite statutes are not the same in every state that has one of these laws on the books. Some states only apply strict liability to bites that occur on public property, or to particular kinds of claimants (government employees, for example).

Dog Owner Liability Rules by State

Below we've provided the general rule for dog owner liability in each state. Note that in "strict liability" states (especially those where exceptions can make the rules tough to sort out), a dog owner can always be held liable if injuries resulted from the owner's negligence. And in a "One-Bite" state, negligence rules may overlap with the statutory requirements for dog owner liability. Remember too that state laws can always change. Talk to a lawyer or do your own research to make sure you're getting the most up-to-date information

State Relevant Statute(s) (If Applicable) General Liability Rule
Alabama Ala. Code §§ 3-6-1 to 3-6-4 Strict Liability
Alaska One-Bite Rule
Arizona Ariz. Rev. Stat. §11-1025
Ariz. Rev. Stat. §11-1020
Strict Liability
Arkansas One-Bite Rule
California Cal. Civ. Code §§ 3342, 3342.5 Strict Liability
Colorado Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-124 Strict Liability
Connecticut Conn. Gen. Stat. § 22-357 Strict Liability
Delaware Del. Code Ann. tit. 16, § 3053F Strict Liability
D.C. D.C. Code Ann. §§ 8-1801, 8-1808 One-Bite Rule (with numerous exceptions)
Florida Fla. Stat. Ann. § § 767.01, 767.04 Strict Liability
Georgia Ga. Code Ann. § 51-2-7 Strict Liability (if claimant can show either owner's knowledge of dog's dangerous propensity, or violation of an ordinance, i.e. a leash law); owner can be held liable if careless management of dog or allowing dog to roam free even w/o knowledge of dangerous propensities.
Hawaii Haw. Rev. Stat. § § 663-9, 663-9.1 Injured person must prove owner was negligent, unless animal is known to be dangerous, wild, or vicious.
Idaho Idaho Code § 25-2810 Strict Liability
Illinois 510 Ill. Comp. Stat., § 5/16 Strict Liability
Indiana Ind. Code 15-20-1-3 Strict Liability (applies only to people who are carrying out official duties of the state or federal government, i.e. law enforcement, postal workers, etc.)
Iowa Iowa Code Ann. § 351.28 Strict Liability
Kansas One-Bite Rule
Kentucky Ky. Rev. Stat. § 258.235 Strict Liability
Louisiana La. Civ. Code, art. 2321 Strict Liability
Maine Me. Rev. Stat. Ann., tit. 7, § 3961 Strict Liability
Maryland Md. Code Ann. [Cts & Jud Pro.) § 3-1901 Strict Liability (unless owner can refute)
Massachusetts Mass. Gen. Laws Ann., ch. 140, § 155 Strict Liability
Michigan Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. § 287.351 Strict Liability
Minnesota Minn. Stat. Ann. § 347.22 Strict Liability
Mississippi One-Bite Rule
Missouri Mo. Rev. Stat. 273.036 Strict Liability
Montana Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-715 Strict Liability (only in incorporated cities and towns)
Nebraska Neb. Rev. Stat. § 54-601 Strict Liability
Nevada One-Bite Rule
New Hampshire N. H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 466:19 Strict Liability (for harm caused by dog's "vicious or mischievous acts")
New Jersey N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:19-16 Strict Liability
New Mexico One-Bite Rule (negligence-based)
New York N.Y. Agric. & Mkts. Law § 123 "Mixed" state (dog-bite statute mixes "one-bite rule" with a limited degree of strict liability)
North Carolina N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 67-4.1, 67-4.4, 67-12 Strict Liability, subject to numerous limitations; strict liability applies when owner intentionally, knowingly, and willfully violates prohibition against dogs "running at large"; also applies to injuries caused by a "dangerous dog" (as defined by state law).
North Dakota One-Bite Rule (negligence-based)
Ohio Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 955.28 Strict Liability
Oklahoma Okla. Stat. Ann., tit. 4, § 42.1 Strict Liability
Oregon Or. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 31.360, 31.710 Strict Liability (economic damages only; no "pain and suffering" compensation in a strict liability case); negligence typically must be shown in order for owner to be liable for claimant's non-economic damages.
Pennsylvania 3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502 (b) Strict Liability (for claimant's medical costs only); full compensation (for all damages including "pain and suffering") only if victim proves owner, keeper or harborer was negligent or knew dog had dangerous propensities.
Rhode Island R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-13-16 Strict Liability (if dog is outside enclosure)
South Carolina S.C. Code Ann. § 47-3-110 Strict Liability (applies only if dog bites or attacks; does not apply to other kinds of non-aggressive behavior that results in injury)
South Dakota One-Bite Rule
Tennessee Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413 (1) The owner of a dog has a duty to keep the animal under reasonable control at all times, and to keep it from running at large. A person who breaches that duty is subject to civil liability for any damages suffered by a person who is injured by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in or on the private property of another. (2) Owner may be held liable regardless of whether dog has shown any dangerous propensities or whether dog's owner knew or should have known of dog's dangerous propensities.
Texas One-Bite Rule
Utah Utah Code Ann, § 18-1-1 Strict Liability
Vermont One-Bite Rule
Virginia One-Bite Rule
Washington Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 16.08.040 Strict Liability
West Virginia W. Va. Code § 19-20-13 Strict Liability (if dog at large)
Wisconsin Wis. Stat. Ann. § 174.02 Strict Liability
Wyoming One-Bite Rule
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