Washington State's Strict Liability for Dog Bites

Are owners responsible even if their dog has never bitten anyone?

By S.M. Oliva | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on April 27, 2023

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Many states have specific dog bite laws spelling out a dog owner’s liability if their animal attacks and injures another person, and Washington state dog bite laws are no different.

Washington state imposes what is called “strict liability” with respect to dog bite injuries. This means that the owner of any dog owner can be held responsible even if their dog has no prior record of biting people.

Strict Liability for Dog Bites in Washington

Some states require evidence of at least one prior incident—sometimes called a “one-bite rule”—before an owner of the dog can be sued, but that is not the case in the state of Washington. 

Section 16.08.040 of the Revised Code of Washington states that an owner of a dog is liable for a dog bite if either of the following conditions apply:

  • The victim is “in or on a public place”
  • The victim is “lawfully in or on a private place,” including any property that belongs to the dog’s owner

So a dog owner can be sued if their dog bites a person at a public park or even a guest invited to the owner’s property. But a person trespassing on private property—for example, a burglar breaking into your house—would not have standing to sue if they suffer a dog attack.

Provocation as a Defense

A dog owner is not liable if their domestic animal was provoked into biting the alleged victim.

The law states that proof of provocation will serve as a “complete defense to an action for damages in dog bite cases.”

Provocation can include any action that prompted the dog to bite. It does not necessarily mean the provocation, of such dog, was intentional. If someone accidentally stepped on the dog, and the animal responded by biting that person, a provocation defense could protect the owner from any liability.

Negligence for Non-Biting Injuries

Under Washington dog bite laws, RCW 16.08.040 only applies to injured persons arising from dog bites. If a dog’s actions result in other types of damages, the owner may be liable under additional statutory or common law principles. For example, if a dog runs out into the street and causes a car accident, the owner might be found liable for negligence if there is evidence she failed to exercise reasonable control over the animal.

If you have questions or concerns, consider reaching out to an experienced personal injury attorney or dog bite lawyer to discuss your dog bite claim, dealing with insurance companies and medical bills. Most attorneys offer a free consultation. If you’d like more general information about this area of the law, see our animal bites law overview.

Washington State holds dog owners strictly liable for dog bites unless the victim was trespassing on private property or the dog was provoked.

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