When an Owner Isn’t Liable for a Dog Bite

Maryland’s laws when a pet bites someone

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The majority of dogs are well-behaved and pose no threat to the physical safety of people. Unfortunately, a small number of dogs do bite or attack humans, and can cause serious injuries. Even in non-fatal cases, victims may be faced with thousands of dollars in medical bills and other damages. Maryland law permits victims to bring a personal injury claim against the dog's owner to recover these costs. Yet not every bite attack is legally considered the owner's fault.

Maria K. Patterson, a personal injury attorney in Bowie, has handled pet bite cases from both sides of the aisle. In one, when Patterson was counsel at State Farm Insurance, a colleague had what she thought was a fairly open-and-shut case. “She thought she would win because the dog was eating roadkill, and a woman went out there with a broom and was hitting the dog over the head,” she says. “We thought that was not very bright on her part, because he thinks he’s having a steak dinner, she hits him and, surprise surprise, she got bit.”

This case serves as an interesting example because two competing arguments were at play: 1) the dog was clearly provoked by the woman, 2) the dog was clearly roaming free. In the end, the jury ruled in favor of the woman. Here is a rundown on the dog-bite liability laws in Maryland, and the things a dog owner can do to defend themselves from such suits.

No Liability When a Dog Is Provoked or Bites Someone Committing a Crime

Section 3-1901 of the Maryland Code, Courts and Judicial Proceedings, states that a dog owner “is liable for any injury, death, or loss to person or property that is caused by the dog, while the dog is running at large.” There are three general exceptions to this rule:

  • The dog attacked someone who was “[c]ommitting or attempting to commit a trespass” or a related crime. In plain English, if your dog bites a burglar breaking into your house, the burglar cannot sue you for damages.
  • Along the same lines, a dog owner is not liable if the animal bites someone who is “[c]ommitting or attempting to commit a criminal offense against any person,” such as murder, rape or assault.
  • The owner is not responsible for a dog bite when the victim or a third party provoked the attack by “teasing, tormenting, or abusing” the animal.

“You’re always asking, ‘Did the plaintiff do something to contribute or assume the risk, which would be something like provocation?’ When an owner’s dog bites someone, it is not automatic negligence. For instance, if the dog felt threatened due to a victim’s objectively unreasonable actions, that could be a defense. Likewise, if a victim was warned of a known risk with regard to the pet, a victim may assume the risk of injury if they chose to voluntarily encounter the risk.”

If your dog has never done something like this before—and you have witnesses on your side to attest as such—Patterson says the plaintiff would have to prove some manner of negligence. “If the dog was at large, that’s automatically a violation of the statute,” she says. “Once the dog is off the property, and off-leash, I would probably look to settle the case.”

Also keep in mind that Maryland is one of just a few states that continues to follow the rule of “contributory negligence” in all personal injury cases. This means that if a dog-bite case goes to court, the owner is not liable for any damages if the judge or jury determines the victim was even 1 percent responsible for his or her own injuries. A qualified Maryland personal injury lawyer can advise you on how contributory negligence may affect your case against a dog owner.

Depending on your county, a dog owner may be asked to stand before an animal control board in defense of a pet. The board may rule to have the pet euthanized.

Strict Liability vs. The One-Bite Rule

Maryland also differs from a number of states that have adopted a “one bite” rule with respect to animal attacks. In one-bite states, an owner who exercises “reasonable care” in controlling their dog is not liable for an attack if the animal had no prior history of aggression (e.g. one previous bite). But Maryland imposes “strict liability” on all dog owners, so it is unnecessary for a victim to prove the animal previously attacked someone else in order to recover damages. That said, Section 3-1901 also creates a “rebuttable presumption” against the owner that a dog who previously bit someone has “vicious or dangerous propensities.”

Even if you were on notice that your dog has “dangerous propensities,” Patterson says there are precautions you can take to protect yourself, such as keeping the dog adequately confined to your property and, when off-property, on a leash and muzzled.

It should also be noted that Maryland legislators amended the law in 2012 to state that no particular dog breed—such as pit bulls or Rottweilers—is inherently dangerous. This amendment expressly overturned a Maryland Court of Appeals decision from earlier that same year declaring “pit bulls and cross-bred pit bulls are inherently dangerous.” As the law currently stands, only an individual dog may be found dangerous based on past behavior, not the entire breed.

Maryland

“You’re always asking, ‘Did the plaintiff do something to contribute or assume the risk, which would be something like provocation?’ Just because the dog bites doesn’t mean it’s your fault. It could have felt threatened.”

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