Generally, when you have been bitten by a dog or attacked by a domestic animal, you have a right to seek compensation for your injuries. Some states look at whether the dog had a history of violence, but most apply a theory of strict liability. In those states that apply strict liability you do not have to demonstrate that the dog had a prior history of violence, or that the dog’s owner knew or should have known the dog could be aggressive or violent. To recover compensation under a claim of strict liability, you only must show that the defendant owned the dog and that the dog bit you, causing you injury.
Some states have enacted what is referred to as the “one free bite” law. In those states, the first time your dog bites someone, you are not liable, unless you had other reasons to expect that your dog might bite someone. However, from that point forward, you are on notice of your dog’s inclination to bite, and you will likely be liable for any future attacks by your dog.
If your dog has already bitten someone, including you or a family member, you are on notice of the dog’s propensity to cause injury. Other situations, however, are not as clear cut:
- Aggressive behavior with other dogs. Courts have consistently held that the way dogs behave toward other dogs is not an indication of how they will behave toward humans
- The dog’s breed. Some jurisdictions have enacted laws identifying certain breeds, such as pit bulls, Rottweilers, Shepherds, as dangerous dogs. In general, though, the courts do not consider any specific breed as an inherent risk.
- Barking at strangers. A dog that barks at strangers is not considered a risk, if it has never threatened anyone.
- Growling or snapping at strangers. This behavior will typically be considered to put a dog owner on notice.
Exceptions to the Rule
Even in states that have strict liability statutes governing dog bites, there are situations where you may be absolved of liability if your dog nips or attacks another person:
- The victim was trespassing on your property;
- The victim taunted, teased or provoked your dog;
- You posted adequate warnings or advised the victim about the aggressive nature of your dog, and the victim chose not to heed your warning. For example, you may have posted a sign telling others to “Beware of the Dog.” If it is legible, clearly visible, and the victim chose to ignore it, you may be able to avoid liability.
- The victim was breaking the law in any way; or
- The victim was negligent or careless, and that carelessness caused or contributed to the attack.
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