If you have been sued because your dog bit or attacked someone else, you may want to know about the strategies that could help you avoid liability. Meanwhile, if you are seeking compensation because you have been injured by a dog, you should be aware of how the defendant or their insurer may respond to your claim. Many states use a “one-bite rule” for dog bite cases, which essentially shields an owner from liability if they did not have reason to know that the dog was dangerous. If you live in one of these states, this may be a valid defense. However, you should be aware that your dog does not necessarily get a “free bite.” Threatening behavior that falls short of a bite or attack may be enough to put you on notice.
Even if you live in a state in which the one-bite rule does not apply, you may be able to argue that the victim actually provoked the dog, that they were trespassing on your property, or that they failed to take reasonable steps to protect themselves. Not all of these arguments apply in every case and every state, but they can avoid or minimize liability when properly used.
A child may be considered less at fault than an adult for provoking a dog.
If the alleged victim provoked the incident by abusing or taunting the dog, the owner likely will not be liable for any resulting attack. The situation may be more complicated if the provocation was unintentional, especially if a child provoked the dog. This is because children under a certain age are not expected to understand the risks of provoking a dog. You should consult the law in your state and court decisions applying it to determine whether a provocation defense may succeed.
Trespassing or Breaking the Law
A person who was illegally on your property or committing a crime there generally cannot sue you if your dog bit them, even if you knew that your dog was dangerous. However, if you told the dog to attack the trespasser, you may be liable because you cannot intentionally endanger others on your property, whether or not they were legally there. If the trespasser was a neighbor’s child, you also may be liable because children can be expected to enter neighboring property to play with dogs.
Just because you did not specifically invite someone onto your property does not mean that they are a trespasser. Mail carriers and law enforcement officers are not considered to be trespassers, nor are solicitors or people on common errands. (An exception may apply if you keep people off your property through a fence, gate, or sign.)
Assumption of Risk
An assumption of risk defense may not be available under a strict liability theory.
Perhaps you took your dog to the vet for a vaccine, and the dog bit the vet’s arm. Or perhaps you arranged to have someone care for your dog while you were on vacation, having explained to them how to handle the dog, and then the dog knocked them over. In either of these situations, the victim likely assumed the risk of being injured by the dog. The assumption of risk defense arises most often in situations in which dogs bite or attack professionals in the pet industry, such as veterinarians, employees at kennels, dog walkers, or pet sitters. However, it may not be available in states that impose strict liability for dog bites.
If the victim contributed to their injuries through their own carelessness, any damages that they receive may be reduced under the state’s law of comparative negligence. In some states, a victim who is found to have been 50 percent or more at fault will not receive any damages. The comparative negligence rule may not apply if the victim is bringing their claim under a statute rather than a general theory of negligence.