When is a dog owner liable for a dog bite in the Volunteer State?
The state animal of Tennessee is the raccoon, but the dog might be more appropriate.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), Tennessee ranks in the top 10 states with the highest percentage of dog owners. Currently, 47% of households (roughly 1.16 million homes) in Tennessee have at least 1 dog.
All states have laws that address when a dog owner can be held liable in the event their dog bites someone.
So how does Tennessee—a state packed with dogs and dog lovers—handle dog-bite liability?
Tennessee’s dog bite laws
When it comes to dog bite laws, most states apply 1 of 2 laws:
|Strict liability||One-bite rule|
|In states that apply strict liability, a dog owner is liable for a dog bite regardless of whether or not the dog displayed aggressive or violent tendencies prior to the bite.||In states that apply a one-bite rule, a dog owner is only responsible for a dog bite if the owner knew or should have known about their dog’s violent tendencies.|
Tennessee is unique in that it applies both strict liability and the one-bite rule, depending on where the dog bite occurred.
Generally, strict liability applies when a plaintiff is bitten by a dog in a public or private place, so long as the plaintiff wasn’t trespassing.
The one-bite rule applies when a plaintiff is bitten by a dog on a farm, inside a private residence, or inside some other non-commercial property that the dog’s owner rents, leases, or occupies with permission.
Unlike most states, Tennessee’s dog bite laws don’t just apply to dog bites. The strict liability and one-bite laws apply to “any damages suffered by a person.” For example, if a dog charges you on a public street and knocks you down (but doesn’t bite you), the owner can still be held liable for any injuries that you sustain as a result of being knocked down.
Who’s considered a dog “owner” under Tennessee law?
Tennessee law defines “owner” broadly to include any person who, at the time of the offense, regularly keeps or exercises control over the dog. The definition does not include someone who temporarily keeps or exercises control over the dog.
Defenses to dog bite claims
Determining liability in a dog bite case is generally pretty straightforward. There are only a few defenses that might apply:
- The defendant provoked the dog. Understandably, Tennessee’s strict liability and one-bite laws don’t apply if the defendant is bitten after “enticing, disturbing, alarming, harassing, or otherwise provoking the dog.”
- The defendant was trespassing. If the plaintiff trespasses (enters without permission) on the dog owner’s property and is bitten, the dog owner will not be held liable.
- The dog is a police or military dog. If the plaintiff is bitten by a police or military dog while the dog was performing its official duties, the dog owner won’t be held liable.
- The dog was protecting the owner or another innocent party from the injured person. If the plaintiff, for example, attacks the dog owner and the dog bites the plaintiff to protect the owner, the owner won’t be held liable.
- The dog was securely confined in a kennel. If the dog was confined in a kennel, crate, or similar enclosure when the bite occurred, the owner won’t be held liable.
How long do you have to file a dog bite lawsuit?
Tennessee has one of the strictest statutes of limitations in the country. For personal injury lawsuits (including dog bite claims), a plaintiff must file their lawsuit within 1 year of being injured by the dog.
It’s very important to take the statute of limitations seriously. There are some very narrow exceptions to this deadline, but in almost all personal injury cases the 1-year statute of limitations will apply and if you fail to file your lawsuit within that time you’ll be permanently barred from filing your lawsuit.
What damages can be recovered?
In Tennessee, you can recover damages for the economic losses (monetary losses) and non-economic losses (non-monetary losses) caused by the dog bite. Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s included in each of these categories:
|Economic damages||Non-economic damages|
What about other animals?
There are a number of laws in Tennessee that apply to other animals. These laws address everything from animal cruelty to owning exotic pets and have been compiled by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.
A complete review of these laws is beyond the scope of this article. However, you should be aware that you can sue the owner of an animal (regardless of whether there’s a specific statute) for negligence if the owner’s carelessness causes your injury.
You should also keep in mind that, in addition to statewide statutes, some counties have their own regulations regarding animals. For example, Clarksville Code of Ordinance 3-203 makes it unlawful for any person owning a dangerous or mischievous animal to allow it to run at large (i.e., unleashed).
Steps to take if you’re injured by a dog in Tennessee
Dog bite claims are typically difficult to prove. What’s more, you only have 1 year to file a lawsuit. Fortunately, there are a few simple steps you can take to increase your chances of success:
Step 1: Seek medical attention
Your health should be your top priority. If you need emergency medical attention, call an ambulance or have someone call one for you. Even if you don’t need emergency medical attention, it’s a good idea to see a doctor following a dog bite or animal attack. This will help prevent a minor injury from becoming worse. What’s more, evidence that you saw a doctor soon after the dog bite will help any future lawsuit.
Tennessee doesn’t have a law requiring you to report a dog bite. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to report a dog bite to the authorities (the police, animal control, or even your local health department depending on where you live). A record of a report will help your case if you later file a lawsuit. Plus, the authorities may conduct an investigation that could help support your claim.
Step 3: Collect the available evidence
If you’re able to do so, collect as much evidence of the attack as you can. This might include:
- The owner’s contact information
- The contact information for any witnesses
- Photographs of the dog, surrounding area, and injuries
- Physical evidence of the dog bite (such as bloodied clothes)
Step 4: Talk to a personal injury attorney
The statute of limitations for dog bite lawsuits is only 1 year. Accordingly, it’s important to meet with an attorney as soon as possible. Most initial consultations are free and the attorney will be able to help you preserve your rights.
If you need help finding an attorney near you, visit our free online lawyer directory.