Who is Liable for Animal Bites?
Understand your legal rights if an animal injures youBy Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 1, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Jason M. Lichtenstein
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- An Overview of Animal Owner Liability
- Besides Owners, Who Else Can Be Liable for Animal Bites?
- Common Defenses to Dog Bite Claims
- Questions for a Personal Injury Attorney
- Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
Dog bites are the most common type of animal attack in the United States. While many dog bites result in relatively minor injuries, some are serious and require immediate medical attention, including:
- Cuts and lacerations
- Punctured skin
- Crushed bones
- Lost fingers or limbs
- Bacterial infections
Medical treatment for dog bite injuries can result in significant medical bills and time away from work. If you’ve suffered injury from a dog bite or other animal attack, you may be wondering:
- Who is liable?
- Can I sue?
- Will I get my medical bills covered?
This article will give an overview of who is liable for animal attacks and what generally must be proven in dog bite cases.
An Overview of Animal Owner Liability
“Dog bite liability is very specific to states,” says Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer Jason M. Lichtenstein. “In Pennsylvania, for example, dog attacks include bites as well as when a dog charges and causes you to flee or fall and injure yourself. Dog bite liability arises if the dog is the proximate cause of the injury.”
In general, there are three ways an animal owner can be liable for injuries caused by their animal:
- Strict liability
- The “one-bite rule”
Let’s look at each of these types of liability in more depth.
Dog Bite Statutes: Strict Liability
Some states, such as California, have dog bite statutes that impose strict liability on owners for injuries caused by their dog.
Strict liability means that an owner is legally responsible for an animal attack regardless of whether they knew or should have known that the animal was dangerous. In other words, the owner is automatically responsible if their dog bites someone (though there are defenses to raise against strict liability, discussed below).
The One-Bite Rule
Other states impose liability on dog owners through “one bite rules.” According to these laws, an owner should have known their dog was dangerous if it bit or attacked someone on a previous occasion.
States such as Pennsylvania used to have the one-bite rule, but no longer require a previous attack to make the owner liable. “It used to be that a dog would have to bite someone for the dog to be considered dangerous,” explains Lichtenstein. “But the law has since changed so that a plaintiff may establish ‘vicious propensities’ from the specific bite or attack in question,” rather than an earlier incident.
So, “in Pennsylvania, the one-bite rule no longer exists… rather, the standard is whether the owner or controller knew or should have known that the dog exhibited dangerous propensities,” he adds. There are several things that could tip off an owner that their dog poses a danger:
- Vet records showing the dog was excitable or aggressive
- If the dog tends to growl, jump, or lunge at humans or animals
- If the owner had a “beware of dog” sign
- If witnesses (such as mail deliverers) testify to having seen the dog be aggressive
“If a dog is deemed to be ‘dangerous’ by a local judicial magistrate, there are several provisions required of the owner,” says Lichtenstein:
- The dog has to wear a muzzle in public
- The dog has to be restrained
- There has to be a sign stating the dog is dangerous
- The owner must purchase a significant liability bond
It’s worth noting that some states regard entire dog breeds as dangerous. In these jurisdictions, courts may conclude that the owner should have known their dog was dangerous simply because of their breed (commonly pit bulls or Dobermans).
A dog or other animal owner could also be liable through negligence. Essentially, negligence means acting recklessly or without appropriate care.
There are four elements to prove in a negligence claim:
- Duty. The animal owner was responsible for ensuring the animal was safe or safely contained.
- Breach. The owner failed in that duty. For example, they failed to warn others about the animal, or didn’t keep it leashed.
- Cause. The owner’s failure to keep the animal contained is what caused harm to someone.
- Damages. Someone was actually harmed by the owner’s failure to keep the animal secure. Harms include injuries, medical expenses, emotional distress, and lost wages.
“There’s a requirement that dogs need to be leashed or otherwise restrained,” says Lichtenstein about negligence in Pennsylvania. “If a dog leaves the owner’s property due to the owner’s negligence (for example, the owner fails to close the gate or leash the dog) and the dog runs off the owner’s property and attacks someone, it’s considered negligence per se,” he says.
Dog owners can defend against that specific negligence per se claim by asserting, for example, “I locked the gate and did everything I could to make sure the dog couldn’t leave, but the dog got out under a circumstance I have no control over”–such as breaking the leash, says Lichtenstein.
Because state laws governing dog bites and animal attacks can vary widely, it’s essential to speak with a dog bite attorney to know the exact law in your area. A dog bite attorney is a personal injury lawyer with experience in dog bite and animal attack cases.
Besides Owners, Who Else Can Be Liable for Animal Bites?
So far, we have been talking about the legal liability of animal owners.
Can people other than the owner of the dog or animal be responsible for animal attacks? Yes. While the specifics depend on state law, generally people who keep or control an animal can also be liable for attacks.
Animal keepers are individuals who don’t own the dog or animal but take care of or control them. Animal keepers can include:
- Temporary keepers like pet or house-sitters
- Professional keepers like kennels, animal shelters, or veterinarians
What type of liability do animal keepers have?
Generally, animal keepers have the same liability as owners. Depending on the state and specific situation, it could be considered negligence for improperly handling a dangerous animal, strict liability, or a “should have known” standard.
Are landlords or other property owners ever liable for dangerous animals?
Generally, landlords are not liable for tenants’ pets unless they knew the animal was dangerous and allowed the animal to live on the premises. For example, under Pennsylvania law, “if an out-of-possession landlord rents to a tenant and the tenant has a dog that attacks and injures somebody, the landlord cannot be held liable unless the landlord had actual knowledge that the dog had vicious propensities,” says Lichtenstein.
Proving a landlord had actual knowledge of a dog’s dangerous tendencies is often hard to do. “It’s usually very difficult for a plaintiff’s attorney to be successful in a claim against out-of-possession landlords,” Lichtenstein says.
Common Defenses to Dog Bite Claims
Dog owners and caretakers have a few potential defenses against dog bite claims, including:
- Trespassing. If the dog bite victim was trespassing on private property when the attack happened, the dog owner might not be liable for the attack. This will depend on state law.
- Assumption of the risk. If the dog bite victim voluntarily risked getting bitten by the dog, the dog owner may not be liable.
- Provoking the dog. If the dog bite victim provoked or attacked the dog first, the dog owner might not be liable for injuries resulting from a dog attack.
Questions for a Personal Injury Attorney
“It’s imperative for someone injured by an aggressive dog to consult with a lawyer,” says Lichtenstein. An attorney with experience in animal attack cases will understand your state’s specific laws and help you formulate a legal game plan.
It’s best to speak with a lawyer sooner rather than later. Many attorneys give free consultations to prospective clients. These meetings are an excellent resource for both attorney and client because they allow the attorney to hear the facts of the case while the client can determine if the attorney meets their needs.
The best way to decide whether an attorney is the right fit is by asking informed questions. Here are some good questions to ask during your initial conversations:
- What are your attorneys’ fees and billing options?
- What is your experience with animal attack cases?
- Who could be liable for injuries in my case?
- What damages could I get in a lawsuit?
- Are there good alternatives to a lawsuit in my situation?
- What are the chances of a settlement?
Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
It is essential to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can give you legal help through your entire case. You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.
For legal advice in an animal bite case, look for a lawyer practicing animal bite law.
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