The “one bite” rule is a provision of a state or local dog bite statute that exempts a dog owner from liability for injuries suffered by someone attacked by his dog, as long as the owner had no prior reason to believe that the dog was prone to aggression. In contrast, most states hold a dog owner strictly liable for injuries caused by his dog, even if the dog had never before shown any aggressive tendencies.
“One Bite Rule” States
As of 2015 there were 18 one-bite rule states in the U.S.: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming. All other states and the District of Columbia have enacted either strict liability dog bite statutes or statutes that combine elements of strict liability and “one bite rule” provisions. Keep in mind that even in states with a “one-bite” rule, certain individual cities and counties apply strict liability to dog owners through separate municipal ordinances.
Liability for a dog attack in a “one-bite” rule state depends on the dog owner’s state of mind – he can be held liable for a dog attack if he “knew or should have known” that the dog was potentially dangerous. The question of liability could get murky if, for example, the owner bought an adult dog from a previous owner who failed to comment on the dog’s behavioral history.
What “One Bite” Really Means
The term “one bite rule” is somewhat misleading – in many jurisdictions a dog needn’t have actually bitten someone before in order to justify holding the owner liable once it happens. All the dog has to have done is to behave in a manner that should put the owner on notice that it is potentially dangerous. Such behavior can include:
- Growling and snapping at strangers
- Chasing cars, bicyclists or pedestrians
- Chasing people and motorists on the owner’s side of a property line fence
- Undergoing attack dog training
- Jumping on people (even if the dog is just being aggressively friendly, because of the risk that the dog will accidentally injure someone)
Certain activities, however, generally do not justify classifying a dog as potentially dangerous. Barking at strangers, for example, or fighting with other dogs generally will not justify the conclusion that the owner should have known that the dog was potentially dangerous.
Defenses to Liability
Several potential defenses are available to a dog owner in a “one-bite rule” jurisdiction who is facing a dog bite claim. Some of the most commonly used defenses are:
- Provocation: Generally, to win a dog bite claim, it is the victim who must prove that he didn’t provoke the dog. Nevertheless, the victim could still prevail if the dog overreacted to a relatively minor provocation.
- Medical treatment: If the victim was a veterinarian who was attacked while treating the dog, a court might decide that the veterinarian assumed the risk of an injury.
- Comparative fault: Comparative fault can be used to reduce or even eliminate the dog owner’s liability. If the victim was trespassing on the owner’s property, for example, a court might rule that the bite was partially the victim’s fault. In most states, such a determination will leave the victim with no recovery if his percentage of fault exceeds a stator benchmark such as 50 percent or 51 percent. If the victim’s percentage of fault falls below this threshold, his damages will be reduced proportionately.
Regardless of whether you are a dog owner who wishes to minimize your liability, or a dog attack victim who needs to objectively evaluate your claim, the services of an experienced dog bite lawyer could greatly benefit you.