When Dogs Bite, Who is Held Liable?

Owning a dog comes with great responsibility. Along with fulfilling a dog's basic needs (food, shelter and water), it's also the owner's job to make sure the dog doesn't pose a threat to other people or animals.

But even the friendliest of dogs can bite if provoked or scared. Who is held liable when a dog attacks?

Who is Liable for Dog Bites?

Laws may vary from one location to the next, but more than half of states hold the dog owner responsible for bites and other dog-related injuries.

These laws may be called ""dog bite statutes,"" but they cover all dog-related injuries – not just bites.

Dog bite statutes are usually ""strict liability,"" which means the owner is held liable regardless of whether he or she did anything wrong. The belief is that dog owners should be responsible for any damages that their dog cause, no matter whether they were careful or even tried to stop the dog from injuring others.

In some states, owners are automatically held liable regardless of whether the victim was trespassing or if the owner was unaware that the dog was vicious.

The only exception to the rule is if the victim provoked the dog. In this case, owners are typically excused from liability.

Dog owners can use provocation as a defense even in states that have strict liability laws. Courts will question whether the victim encouraged, incited or provoked the dog into biting.

Courts may consider a number of questions when determining negligence, such as:

  • Was the animal behaving in a dangerous way, and if so, was that dangerous behavior the cause of the injury?
  • Does the animal have a history or biting or behaving aggressively?
  • Was the owner aware of the dog's propensity?

Dog Bite Statutes

Some states have broad dog-bite statutes that cover a wide range of injuries. In Minnesota, for example, the laws are victim-friendly.

Victims are not required to show proof that the dog owner was negligent, but they do have to prove four things to win a lawsuit:

  • The victim was attacked or injured by a dog.
  • The defendant is, in fact, the owner of the dog.
  • The victim did not provoke the dog into biting or attacking.
  • The victim was not trespassing and acting peaceably.

Minnesota's law does not even require the dog to come into physical contact with the victim for the statute to apply. If a dog lunges or runs at someone, the statute applies. But the dog must still take direct action at the victim for the law to apply.

If a dog is running toward its home and gets in the way of someone riding a bike, the owner would not be held liable for the biker's injuries because the dog was not targeting the rider; he was running home.

In some other states, dog-bite statutes only apply to dog bites, like in California, which also has the highest rate of dog bite claims in America. Owners may use provocation as a defense. If the victim intentionally did something that he or she knew would cause the dog pain or annoyance, the provocation rules may apply. Any actions that may cause pain or fear from the animal's perspective may also be considered provocation.

If a child pokes a dog with a stick, for example, and the dog bites, the child's actions would likely be considered provocation. The poking action likely caused the dog pain or to become fearful, which caused the animal to react defensively. There may be an exception in this particular example if the child is very young. In this case, the court may argue that the child had no idea it was provoking the dog.

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