Dog Bites: Can Dog Owners be Held Legally Liable?

Dog Bites: Can Dog Owners be Held Legally Liable?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dogs bite approximately 4.7 million Americans each year. Around 800,000 of those victims require medical attention and 386,000 require emergency medical attention. The severity of dog bites varies from mild lacerations to death. Victims bitten by dogs owned by other people may be eligible to receive compensation for their injuries, although the avenue of recovery may be slightly different depending upon the jurisdiction.

Strict Liability

Dog bites can occur without warning. Even reasonable efforts to keep a dog contained, such as using a leash or ensuring the integrity of one’s fencing, may fail. If that happens, victims are left with their injuries and an uphill battle to prove negligence in order to recoup costly medical expenses and other damages. Contacting a personal injury lawyer from the same area you were injured in is the best way to get informative and legal advice in regards to what your rights are. For example, if you were bitten by a dog while taking a walk in San Bernardino, CA then you would want to contact a San Bernardino personal injury lawyer. A law firm from this area would be able to counsel and best defend you. Most personal injury lawyers also offer a free initial consultation.

Many states have statutes holding dog owners at fault for certain types of dog bites regardless of the owner’s fault. States impose strict liability under the theory that the dog’s owner is in the best position to control the dog and avoid the bite in the first place. Strict liability makes it easier for injured plaintiffs to recover damages, as injured plaintiffs need not prove fault on the part of the dog’s owner.

California is one such state. California Civil Code § 3342 makes dog owners liable for injuries sustained while the victim is in a public place or lawfully in a private place. Individuals are considered to be “lawfully” on the property when they are invited by the owner or carrying out state or federally mandated duties. The statute exempts police dogs biting in the course of various types of police work.

Many states have similar statutes; if a victim is lawfully entitled to be where he or she is, then the victim can sue for damages. However, some states qualify the issue. For example, Montana imposes strict liability for injuries sustained in cities or towns only, while Colorado imposes strict liability only for certain types of injuries. Florida allows owners to evade strict liability by posting statutory warnings.


Victims of dog bites who reside in states that do not impose strict liability for dog bites may still recover damages. In such a case, the plaintiff will pursue a claim for negligence. A claim for negligence essentially argues that the defendant owed a duty of care and breached it, causing an injury to the plaintiff. If the injury arose as a result of unreasonable conduct or a violation of a state statute or ordinance, such as violating a local leash law, plaintiffs may have a colorable claim for negligence.

Negligence claims arising from dog bites can be problematic for a few reasons. First, plaintiffs must prove fault on the part of the defendant. If a gardener leaves a gate open and a dog leaves the backyard while the defendant is at work, he or she could not reasonably have known about or taken action to prevent the injury assuming that he or she instructed the contractors to close the gate. Thus, proving that the property owner was negligent can be difficult.

Second, defendants can argue contributory negligence. Defendants will commonly argue that the dog was antagonized or that the plaintiff otherwise contributed to his or her injury; since the dog cannot testify, such arguments often boil down to two parties with contradictory testimony and little corroborating evidence. If the plaintiff contributed to his or her injury, the award will be reduced by the percentage of his or her negligence.

Additionally, states that do not impose strict liability still qualify claims arising from dog bites in certain ways. Many states, including Maine, Iowa, and Illinois require plaintiffs to prove that they did not provoke the attack or trespass on the defendant’s property. Connecticut and New Hampshire require the plaintiff to prove that he or she was not committing another tortious act at the time of the attack.

Other states, such as Hawaii and North Carolina, have laws imposing strict liability if the dog was known to be dangerous but otherwise requiring plaintiffs to prove negligence. California law is simpler than most and more friendly to injured plaintiffs.

State law differs widely when it comes to dog bites. It is important as a pet owner to know what the local and state law says about an injury that a pet may cause and, as a pet owner, a person may be responsible for. It is recommended to contact a local attorney or research what the law says if you are such a pet owner.  

As a pet and dog owner herself, Lisa Coleman writes to share the importance of knowing what we are responsible for regarding our dogs. If you are a pet owner or know someone in need of legal counsel from a dog bite, contact a local personal injury lawyer, like the San Bernardino personal injury lawyer firm of Milligan, Beswick, Levine & Knox LLP, who will advise you of your rights and vigorously defend you.



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