Colorado has laws for dog bites, but how much the owner knows about the dog’s temperament matters a lot for the victim
Follow this guide to determine your rights and responsibilities, whether you’re a Colorado dog owner or a victim
Colorado is a traditionally dog-friendly state. In fact, a 2019 Denverite article reports that Denver has more dogs than children. Colorado’s capital city is estimated to have about 158,000 canine pets in 99,000 households (as opposed to about 140,000 human children).
Still, there were only about 13 off-leash parks in the city, mostly in the northern part of the metro area.
Whether you’re in Denver or elsewhere in the vast Centennial State, you are likely to come into contact with dogs fairly frequently, whether they’re your own or in your community. And while your dog might be your best friend, they might not be the best friend to others. Even the friendliest, most placid dog is still a dog. Animals react with primal instincts and no dog can be guaranteed not to bite if challenged or if they’re feeling threatened or afraid.
Every dog bite incident has two sides: The victim, or the injured person who was bitten, and the owner of the dog. Let’s take a look at how Colorado dog bite laws could affect you as a victim of a dog bite or your liability as a dog owner.
Colorado dog ownership laws
It’s important to note that each municipality will have its own leash laws. It will also have license requirements for dogs. Most counties have a restriction of the number of dogs that can live in your home; generally, there’s a limit of four dogs over four months old per household but many counties limit residential areas to three dogs at a time. While Colorado doesn’t have any breed restrictions statewide, there are many municipalities that ban pit bulls. The city of Denver had a pit bull ban for three decades but residents voted to repeal the law in 2020. Pit bulls are now permitted in Denver but owners are required to have a provisional Breed-restricted Permit from the city’s animal protection agency.
Pit bulls aren’t the only dogs that are banned in some communities. Cities outside Denver like Louisville and Broomfield ban all wolf-dog hybrid breeds. Some municipalities ban these breeds:
- Cane Corsos
- American Bulldogs
- Tosa Inus
- Presa Mallorquins
- Staffordshire Bull Terriers
- American Staffordshire Terriers
- Dogo Argentinos
- Fila Brasileiros
- Canary Dogs
And while there are no statewide bans on specific breeds, the state of Colorado does ban owners from having dangerous dogs. The Colorado Revised Statutes §18-9-204.5 defines a dangerous dog as one that:
- Has injured or killed a person or domestic animal,
- Has tendencies that reasonably demonstrate that the dog might kill a person or domestic animal; or
- Is trained for or engages in illegal animal fighting.
Colorado leash laws
Colorado doesn’t have a statewide leash law, but dogs must be within the owner or caretaker’s control at all times. Most municipalities do have leash laws, however, and require that dogs are on leashes at all times when out in public. In some municipalities, the rule is that a dog can be off leash only if they are with their owner and respond to voice commands.
Colorado dog bite laws
According to Colorado Revised Statutes §13-21-124, if a person suffers serious injury or dies from a dog bite while the person is lawfully on public or private property, the victim may file a lawsuit against the dog’s owner. This is true even if the dog is not known to be vicious or dangerous.
In other words, a Colorado dog owner is automatically liable for a serious injury or death caused by their dog.
There are specific injuries that the law defines as “serious” enough to warrant a lawsuit. These include:
- A substantial risk of death;
- A substantial risk of serious permanent disfigurement;
- A substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of a body part or organ;
- Fractures; or
- Second or third-degree burns.
"One free bite" rule
That a "one free bite" rule exists in Colorado is part misnomer and part myth.
There used to be a rule in some states that if a dog has never bitten someone, the owner is not liable for the first bite.
However, it’s not that simple. When a dog has never shown aggression or bitten anyone in the past, if they bite someone for the first time, the victim may claim economic damages. That means they may file a lawsuit against the dog’s owner for the costs related to the injury—this could include medical treatment, surgery, a hospital stay, lost wages if they had to miss time from work, and other quantifiable expenses. This is under the principle of strict liability, and it applies whether or not the dog has ever bitten someone.
The principle of strict liability applies in very specific cases within the law. It means that the plaintiff (injured person) does not need to prove that the defendant was negligent; they only need to prove that they suffered serious injury or death.
Strict liability usually applies in lawsuits involving injuries from the possession of wild animals, abnormally dangerous activities, and product liability manufacturing defects.
If the owner should reasonably know that the dog is aggressive because they’ve been aggressive in the past or have bitten before, then the victim may file a lawsuit for both economic and non-economic damages. Non-economic damages include pain and suffering, emotional distress, scarring and disfigurement, disability and compensation that is above and beyond the purely financial costs associated with the injury.
Colorado vicious dog law
Colorado Revised Statutes § 189-204.5 makes it a crime to own or control a dangerous dog, defined as one that injures or kills a person or domestic animal, or engages in or is trained for illegal animal fighting.
There can be criminal penalties if a dangerous dog seriously injures or kills someone.
Even if the dog’s owner isn’t criminally charged, the animal might be euthanized if it seriously injures or kills someone. The victim or their representative may make a motion to the court that results in an order for euthanization by a licensed veterinarian or shelter at the owner’s expense.
When is the owner not liable for a dog bite?
When a victim is seriously injured by a dog bite or attack, the owner is not liable under these conditions:
- The injured person is unlawfully on public property or private property (regardless of whether the property owner has a ‘no trespassing’ sign);
- The victim is on the dog owner’s property where a “beware of dog” or similar sign is posted;
- The animal is a police or military dog performing its duties;
- The injured person knowingly provoked the dog;
- The person is a vet, dog groomer, or other professional who works with dogs; or
- The dog is working to hunt, herd, farm, ranch, or control predators on the owner’s property.
Types of damages from a Colorado dog bite
If the plaintiff sues under a strict liability action, they may claim economic damages. These include:
- medical expenses, including surgery, hospital visits, etc.
- future medical expenses
- psychological counseling costs
- loss of income
- future loss of income
- loss of earning ability
If they file under a traditional negligence action, they can claim non-economic damages that include:
- pain and suffering
- loss of consortium
- psychological harm / emotional distress
This would be based on a finding of negligence, which means the defendant had a duty to the plaintiff, breached that duty, the breach caused the plaintiff an injury and the injury cost the plaintiff money.
A defendant might have breached their duty if a reasonable person would have acted differently under similar circumstances.
In other words, the dog owner has a duty to prevent their dog from harming another person or animal. If they fail to protect people and the dog causes an injury, the victim may claim financial damages to cover their costs associated with the attack.
The victim has two years from the date of the injury in which to file a Colorado lawsuit.