Move Over Rover: Strict Liability is Taking Over

Being on the receiving end of a dog attack is a painfully traumatic event that affects victims physically, economically, and quite possibly emotionally. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year, and 800,000 of them seek medical attention. On that basis, insurance companies are continually inundated with dog attack claims.

State Dog Bite Laws

Who might be held liable in any dog bite case anywhere in the United States has been left for the various state legislatures to determine. Liability might be based on old common law in one state, while its neighboring state enacted its own dog attack statute long ago. In some states, every dog gets “one free bite,” while in others, no bites at all are permissible. Those states are known as strictly liability states. The majority of states rely on strict liability in one form or another now, and that number is expected to continue to grow.

Common-Law Dog Bite States

If liability in a dog bite case pivots on an owner or dog keeper’s act or failure to act, that case is going to be decided under the law of common law negligence. In order to prevail in a common-law case, the bite victim must show that the owner or keeper of the dog had a legal duty to be free from carelessness and negligence owed to him or her, and the dog’s owner or keeper breached that duty. Then, that victim must show that injuries and damages were suffered as a result of that breach. For example, a failure to properly secure a dog or allow it to run at large are likely to be breaches of the duty of care. When a dog gets its “free bite”, the owner of that dog is put on notice that there’s a propensity to harm to others in the future. Various state legislatures are of the opinion that notice of a dog’s dangerous propensities gives the owner or keeper of the dog a chance to work on correcting bad behavior and reducing the risk of harm to potential victims.

Strict Liability States

Most states use a stricter standard for dog attacks. That’s known as strict liability. When you’re in a strict liability state, if there’s a dog bite, liability automatically attaches to a dog’s owner, regardless of whether the dog bit somebody in the past or not..The dog’s owner can’t argue that he or she had no idea that the dog might become aggressive. He or she is liable for all of the damages suffered by the victim, even if the dog never attacked anybody in the past. The victim need only show that he or she was in a public place or lawfully in a private place and did nothing to antagonize or provoke the dog.

Negligence in Strict Lability States

There might be times when the issue arises as to whether a dog bite victim was lawfully in a private place. He or she might even be labeled a trespasser. Then, the law of negligence might be asserted, even in a strict liability state. A friendly dog might be happy to see a visitor and jump up on him or her and knock the visitor over and cause injuries. The general rule is that there is no strict liability if there is no bite. The injured visitor would need to proceed against the dog’s owner under the law if negligence.

Whether you’re in a “one free bite” state or a strict liability state, exercise due care and caution around dogs that don’t know you. They might not be your best friend.