Over 800,000 dog bites require hospitalization in the United States each year, and even deaths occur from time to time. One way to recover your medical expenses and other losses is to sue the dog owner. Animal control laws passed by state legislatures often make it easier for a dog bite victim to sue a dog owner for damages.
Types of Animal Control Laws that Apply to Dog Bite Cases
- Leash Laws: Leash laws require a dog to be leashed whenever it is off its owner’s property. Some states even require a dog to be leashed whenever it is outside unless its owner’s property is fenced in. Other states allow a dog to venture off its owner’s property without a leash as long as it is confined or otherwise under its owner’s or handler’s control.
- “Dogpassing” Laws: Some states make it illegal for a dog to trespass on another’s property.
- The “One Bite” Rule: The “one bite” rule exempts a dog owner from liability unless the dog bite victim can prove that the dog had bitten someone before, that the dog had violent propensities, or the owner had some reason to believe that the dog was dangerous.
Negligence Per Se
In some states, such as Arizona, a dog owner is strictly liable for damages suffered by someone bitten by a dog. In these states, there is no need for a dog bite victim to prove that the owner was negligent (careless). In other states, such as Colorado, the dog owner is liable if and only if the victim can show that the dog owner was negligent in some way.
In most of the negligence states, the victim needs only to show that the dog owner violated an animal control law with respect to the dog (by failing to leash the dog off of his property, for example), and the dog owner will be automatically liable for the victim’s damages. In a few of the negligence states, however, the owner’s violation of an animal control law is only evidence of negligence, which evidence can be further rebutted by the defendant (by showing that failing to leash the dog, although illegal, did not add up to negligence under the circumstances)
The “One Bite Rule” and Negligence Per Se
In states with a “one-bite” rule, a dog bite victim might sue a dog owner whose dog has never before shown violent propensities. In these states, the negligence per se doctrine might be the only legal theory under which a dog bite victim can win a lawsuit. If no animal control law was violated, the victim might be forced to rely on his own insurance policy or absorb the loss himself.
Defenses to Negligence Per Se
Statutory Wording: The “Allow” Ambiguity: In some states, a dog owner violates the law if he “allows” his dog to roam freely without a leash. A defendant might argue that the dog unexpectedly escaped when the owner opened the front door to allow a guest inside, and that he therefore did not “allow” the dog to escape. The success or failure of this argument depends on which state and which court.
Contributory Negligence/Comparative Fault: All states allow a victim’s damages to be reduced if the dog bite was partially the victim’s fault (by teasing the dog, for example). If the victim’s fault was serious enough, his damages might be reduced to zero even if the bite was partially the owner’s fault.
If you have been injured by a dog bite, keep in mind that dog bite law is more complex than you might anticipate. The services of an experienced dog bite lawyer could make the difference between winning and losing your case.