State Laws and Dog Bite Liability Issues

There are laws determining dog bite liability, which vary from state to state, and dog owners should know what the liability issues are wherever they live. Essentially, there are two basic kinds of laws: liability when the owner of the dog knew (or should have known) the dog might bite someone, and liability regardless of what the owner knew or should have known.

”One Bite” laws

The “one bite” law is applied in about 40% of the states in the US. Originally, it generally meant that a dog was allowed “one free bite” before it would get its owner into legal trouble. As the law now states, the one bite rule does not necessarily allow a dog one free bite. If an owner knows the particular breed is dangerous, or if a particular dog might be prone to biting because of its general character, the owner could be liable for the dog’s first bite.

The focus is on whether the owner took necessary precautions based on his or her knowledge of the animal. For example, a dog with a history of being overly excited and prone to snapping at people should be restrained. By not warning a houseguest or stranger not to pet the dog, the owner could be held liable if the person approaches the dog, is not properly warned about the animal’s aggressiveness, and is subsequently bitten.

Whether the owner knew or should have known the dog might bite is still a matter for the courts to decide, and could be determined based on certain circumstantial evidence that the plaintiff’s attorney would likely present:

  • The dog’s breed
  • How the owner trained the dog
  • How extensively the owner typically restrained the dog, and
  • What the owner used the dog for (i.e. protection)

These are some of the factors a judge could use in determining if there is a viable case against the owner of the dog.

Strict Liability dog bite laws

The majority of states have enacted “dog bite” statutes that provide specific rules for dog bite liability cases. Strict liability means that the defendant is held liable if a certain event occurs, regardless of whether the defendant could have done anything to prevent the event.

In a court of law, if the plaintiff was legally allowed to be where he was when the bite occurred, and did not provoke the dog in any way, then the defendant is liable for the dog biting this person. Note that the dog bite statutes are not the same in every state that has them.


photo credit: bunchadogs & susan [off and on] cc