How liability works in all 50 states
Let’s talk about dogs.
According to the American Pet Products Association, there are approximately 90 million dogs in the United States. This means that there are more dogs in America than there are people in France and Australia combined. Roughly 49% of all American households have at least one dog and 43% of all non-pet owners plan to own a pet in the future.
With so many dogs in so many homes, it’s easy to forget that dogs are animals. Unfortunately, reminders can come in the form of vicious dog bites.
Dog bite statistics
According to recent estimates, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by a dog every year. In addition to being painful, dog bites can cause injuries and infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that roughly 1 in 5 people bitten by dogs require medical attention.
Here are some other dog bite statistics:
- Breeds responsible for the highest number of reported bites are, in order: pit bulls, mixed breeds, German shepherds, terriers, and rottweilers.
- The majority of dog bites involve dogs who aren’t spayed or neutered
- Roughly 25% of fatal dog attacks were inflicted by chained dogs
- The insurance industry pays roughly $550 million in dog-bite-related claims every year
- More than 6,000 US Postal Service employees were bitten by dogs in 2017
Dog bite injuries
Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, from chihuahuas (3-6 pounds) to English Mastiffs (up to 350 pounds). As a result, dog bite injuries can vary tremendously.
Here are some of the most common dog bite injuries:
- Puncture wounds
- Nerve damage
- Emotional distress
When are dog owners liable for dog bites?
All 50 states have laws in place that determine when dog owners are liable for dog bites. In most cases, states have adopted strict liability laws, one-bite laws, or simply chosen to apply negligence laws. Check out the table at the end of this article to find out where your state falls.
Strict liability laws
In states that have adopted strict liability laws, a dog owner is liable for the injuries caused by their dog so long as the injured person can prove that:
- The injury was caused by a dog bite, and
- The bite was sustained while the injured person was in a public place or lawfully on private property.
You’ll notice that the injured person doesn’t need to prove that the dog previously bit someone or that the dog had previously exhibited any violent behavior. If the dog bit the person, the owner is liable so long as the injured person wasn’t trespassing.
In states that have adopted one-bite laws, a dog owner isn’t liable for a dog bite unless the injured person can prove that the owner should have known about their dog’s violent propensities.
Let’s look at an example:
Janet has had her golden retriever Lucy for 7 years. During those 7 years, Lucy has never bitten anyone or acted violently. Nevertheless, one morning while Janet is walking the dog down the street, Lucy pulls away from Janet and bites a passing child.
In this example, Janet would not be held liable in a one-bite state because she had no knowledge of any violent propensities. However, Janet would be liable in a strict liability state.
Some states don’t have specific statutes addressing dog bites and instead apply the normal negligence laws to dog bite cases. In these states, a person injured by a dog bite needs to prove that:
- The dog owner owed a duty to the injured person,
- The dog owner breached that duty, and
- The injured person was injured as a result of that breach.
To stick with the example above, Janet owes a duty to take reasonable care to avoid hurting others. It doesn’t appear that Janet did anything to breach that duty and therefore she likely wouldn’t be found negligent. However, Janet might be found negligent if she failed to leash her dog (particularly if a leash law was in place).
Defenses to dog bite claims
Dog bite cases tend to be pretty straightforward in strict liability states. The only available defenses are:
- The victim wasn’t actually bitten
- The victim provoked the dog
- The victim was trespassing at the time of the bite
In one-bite states, however, cases can be a little less clear. This is because the focus of litigation is generally on whether the dog exhibited violent behavior before the bite and whether the owner knew or should have known about these behaviors.
Any of the following might be used to prove that a dog exhibited violent behavior before the attack:
- Police reports of other bites
- Witness testimony
- Videos or photographs displaying aggressive behavior
- Copies of citations or warnings issued by the local animal control center
Where to file your lawsuit
If you suffered a serious dog bite injury, it’s probably best to file your lawsuit in a state court of general jurisdiction.
On the other hand, if your damages are low, it may be appropriate to file your lawsuit in a small claims court. Small claims courts limit or “cap” the amount of damages you can recover. The dollar limit depends on the state but is generally somewhere around $10,000. Small claims courts tend to be less formal than other courts and lawyers aren’t typically involved (in some states, lawyers are strictly prohibited).
What about insurance?
It may not be necessary to file a personal injury lawsuit after suffering a dog bite. Injuries caused by dogs are normally covered under the dog owner’s homeowners insurance policy.
After a dog attack, assuming it’s safe to do so, get the name of the dog owner and their homeowner’s insurance company name and policy number. You can then file an insurance claim with the insurance company.
Keep in mind that the insurance company will likely investigate the claim, so be prepared to provide any evidence of the attack, including medical records. If the insurance company denies your claim or gives you a lowball offer, consider reaching out to an experienced personal injury attorney.
We’ve already established that you can recover damages if you’re bitten by a dog.
But what if you don’t think that’s enough? What if you’re worried the dog will strike again?
The answer depends on the state (and even the county) in which you were bitten.
In most states, individual counties have the authority to pass ordinances addressing how they control dangerous dogs.
Let’s use Cascade County, Montana as an example.
In Cascade County, if a dog has bitten people on 3 separate occasions (or if any 1 dog bite was particularly violent), the dog may be put to death by an animal control officer following a hearing to determine if the action is necessary for the safety of the citizens of the community.
Dog bite statutes apply to—you guessed it—dog bites.
But what happens if a dog causes you injury without biting you, such as knocking you over or causing you to crash your car?
If a dog injures you without biting you, you’ll need to file a negligence lawsuit.
|Dog Bite Laws in All 50 States
|Summary of law
|Ala. Code 3-6-1
|Hale v. O’Neill, Alaska Supreme Court (1971)
|Strange v. Stovall, Arkansas Supreme Court (1977)
|Cal. Code 3342
|Colo. Rev. Stat. 13-21-124
|Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. 22-357
|Del. Code Ann. 1711
|District of Columbia
|D.C. Code Ann. 8-1808
|Fl. Stat. 767.04
|Steagald v. Eason, Georgia Supreme Court (2017)
|Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. 663-9
|Idaho Code 25-2805
|510 Ill. Comp. Stat. 5/16 16
|Ind. Code 15-5-12-1
|Strict liability for victims carrying out duty imposed by law; one-bite law for everyone else
|Iowa Code Ann. 351.28
|Mercer v. Fritts, Kansas Court of Appeals (1984)
|Ky. Rev. Stat. 258.235
|La. Civ. Code 2321
|Dog owner is liable if they could have prevented the bite
|Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. 3961
|Strict liability for bites that occur off owner’s premises
|MD. Code 3-1901
|One-bite law, but rebuttable presumption that dog had prior violent tendencies
|Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. 140, 155
|Mich. Comp. Laws Ann. 287.351
|Minn. Stat. Ann. 347.22
|Poy v. Grayson, Supreme Court of Mississippi (1973)
|Mo. Rev. Stat. 273.036
|Mont. Code Ann. 27-1-715
|Neb. Rev. Stat. 54-601
|Nev. Stat. Ann. 202.500
|NH Rev. Stat. Ann. 466:19
|NJ Stat. Ann. 4:19-16
|Smith v. Village of Ruidoso, New Mexico Court of Appeals (1999)
|NY Agriculture & Markets Law 123(10)
|Strict liability for medical damages only; one-bite law for all other damages
|NC Gen. Stat. Ann. 67-4.4
|Sendelbach v. Grad, Supreme Court of North Dakota (1976)
|Ohio Rev. Code. Ann. 955.28
|Oka. Stat. Ann. 4-42.4
|Westberry v. Blackwell, Oregon Supreme Court 1978
|Pa. Consol. Stat. 502 A
|R.I. Gen. Laws 4-13-16
|SC Code Ann. 47-3-110
|Blaha v. Stuard, South Dakota Supreme Court (2002)
|Tenn. Code Ann. 44-8-413
|VTCA Health & Safety Code 822.005
|One-bite law; strict liability if a leash law was violated
|Utah Code Ann. 18-1-1
|Martin v. Christman, Vermont Supreme Court (2014)
|Butler v. Frieden, Supreme Court of Virginia (1967)
|Wash. Rev. Code 16-08-040
|W. Va. Code 19-20-13
|Strict liability if unleashed
|Wis. Stat. 174.02
|Injured person must prove negligence or knowledge of dog’s prior violent behavior