Laws determining liability for a dog bite vary from state to state, but there are essentially two basic kinds of laws: liability when the dog owner knew or should have known the dog might bite someone, and liability regardless of what the owner knew or should have known. This article discusses the difference between these two legal concepts in the context of a dog bite case, and includes state-by-state statutory rules.
Prior to the twentieth century, a dog owner was only held liable for his dog's biting someone if the owner had reason to know the dog might bite. This was called the “one bite” rule because it generally meant that a dog was allowed “one free bite” before it would get its owner in 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 recent events, he could be liable 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 necessary 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 aggravated the area of the dog’s surgery and was subsequently bitten.
Whether the owner knew or should have known the dog might bite can be a very complicated and contested question. The plaintiff will need to provide enough evidence to convince the jury it was “more likely than not” the defendant knew or should have known, and the defendant will need to argue why the plaintiff’s evidence is insufficient or provide contradictory evidence.
The kind of circumstantial evidence the plaintiff might rely on includes: the dog’s breed, what the owner used the dog for (i.e. protection), how the owner trained the dog, neighbors’ experience with the dog and/or warnings from the owner, and how extensively the owner typically restrained the dog.
Many states have enacted “dog bite” statutes that provide specific rules for dog bite cases. Most of these statutes 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 the defendant is liable if his dog bit a plaintiff and:
If a strict liability dog bite statute applies, what the owner did or did not know about the dog prior to the bite is irrelevant. Note that the dog bite statutes are not the same in every state that has them. Some only apply to bites that occur on public property, some allow the defense that the plaintiff was warned, and some apply specifically to dog bites while others apply to domestic animal attacks generally.
Regardless of the variations, the most important aspect of the strict liability dog bite statutes is that a winning case is easier to predict, the plaintiff will have a much easier time proving and winning a case at trial, and a defendant is therefore much more likely to settle early on if it is clear the statute applies.
See the following chart for the liability rules in each state. Click on the state link for more detail on state-specific dog owner liability laws, possible defenses, and more.
|State||Relevant Statute(s) (If Applicable)||General Liability Rule|
|Alabama||Ala. Code § 3-6-1||Strict Liability|
Ariz. Rev. Stat. §11-1025
Ariz. Rev. Stat. §11-1020
|California||Cal. Civ. Code § 3342||Strict Liability|
|Colorado||Colo. Rev. Stat. § 13-21-124||Strict Liability|
|Connecticut||Conn. Gen. Stat. § 22-357||Strict Liability|
|Delaware||9 Dela. Code § 913||Strict Liability|
|D.C.||D.C. Code Ann. § 8-1812||Strict Liability|
Fla. Stat. Ann. § § 767.01
Fla. Stat. Ann. § § 767.04
|Georgia||Ga. Code Ann. § 51-2-7||The owner or keeper of a "vicious or dangerous" animal may be liable for injuries [caused by the dog] through careless management or by allowing the dog to go at liberty (off leash or otherwise not under control).|
|Hawaii||Haw. Rev. Stat. § § 663-9, 663-9.1||Owner liable if animal was known to be dangerous, or if plaintiff proves that owner was negligent.|
|Illinois||510 Ill. Comp. Stat., § 5/16||Strict Liability|
|Indiana||Ind. Code 15-20-1-3||Strict Liability|
|Iowa||Iowa Code Ann. § 351.28||Strict Liability|
|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|
|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|
|Missouri||Mo. Rev. Stat. 273.036||Strict Liability|
|Montana||Mont. Code Ann. § 27-1-715||Strict Liability|
|Nebraska||Neb. Rev. Stat. § 54-601||Strict Liability|
|New Hampshire||N. H. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 466:19||Strict Liability|
|New Jersey||N.J. Stat. Ann. § 4:19-16||Strict Liability|
|New Mexico||One-Bite Rule|
|New York||One-Bite Rule|
|North Carolina||N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 67-4.4||The owner of a dangerous dog shall be strictly liable in civil damages for any injuries or property damage the dog inflicts upon a person, his property, or another animal.|
|North Dakota||One-Bite Rule|
|Ohio||Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 955.28||Strict Liability|
|Oklahoma||Okla. Stat. Ann., tit. 4, § 42.1||Strict Liability|
|Pennsylvania||3 Pa. Stat. § 459-502 (b)||Strict Liability|
|Rhode Island||R.I. Gen. Laws § 4-13-16||Strict Liability|
|South Carolina||S.C. Code Ann. § 47-3-110||Strict Liability|
|South Dakota||One-Bite Rule|
|Tennessee||Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413||(1) The owner of a dog has a duty to keep that dog under reasonable control at all times, and to keep that dog 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) Such a person 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.|
|Utah||Utah Code Ann, § 18-1-1||Strict Liability|
|Washington||Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 16.08.040||Strict Liability|
|West Virginia||W. Va. Code § 19-20-13||Strict Liability|
|Wisconsin||Wis. Stat. Ann. § 174.02||Strict Liability|