Washington State’s Strict Liability for Dog Bites

Are owners responsible even if their dog has never previously bit anyone?

By S.M. Oliva

Many states have specific laws spelling out a dog owner’s legal liability if their animal bites and injures another person, and Washington is no different. The state imposes what is called “strict liability” with respect to dog bites. This means an owner can be held responsible even if their dog has no prior record of biting people.

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

Section 16.08.040 of the Revised Code of Washington states that an owner 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 an owner can be sued if their dog bites a person at a public park or even a guest invited into your home. But a person trespassing on private property—for example, a burglar breaking into your house—would not have standing to sue if they are bitten.

Provocation as a Defense

A dog owner is not liable if their 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.” Provocation can include any action that prompted the dog to bite. It does not necessarily mean the provocation 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

RCW 16.08.040 only applies to injuries 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.

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