Dog bite cases present a shocking sudden trauma and long term damages. Man’s best friend turns into a monster. Permanent scarring results in many cases.
The only good news in dog bite cases comes in strict liability. Most, not all, states impose strict liability on the owner or keeper of a dog for damages inflicted by the animal.
For example, the Massachusetts dog bite statute imposes strict liability for damage caused by a dog. There is no “one free bite” rule as there used to be under the common law of negligence regarding dog bites.
Under the negligence standard in the minority of states without strict liability laws, the dog owner is usually required to have been on notice as to the dangerous propensities of the dog. So, if the dog bites once – the one free bite –there’s no case. But afterwards the owner becomes liable.
Any Defenses to Strict Liability?
The only defenses to the strict liability in dog bite laws protect the dog owner if the victim meddled with the dog. The Massachusetts statute potentially forgives the dog owner if the victim teased, tormented or trespassed against the dog. The similar New Hampshire statute provides a defense if the victim was engaged in the commission of “a trespass or other tort.”
The ‘teasing, tormenting or trespassing’ defenses do not apply in Massachusetts if the dog bite victim is a child under the age of 7. A presumption kicks in that the child is not doing any of those things. This means the dog’s owner or keeper must present substantial proof. So, in most cases of dog injuries to children under 7, the owner or keeper will have no defense.
What About Non-bite Injuries.
Laws vary by state. But, the Massachusetts law holds the owner liable if the dog “shall do any damage”. Thus, my office successfully handled a case in which a dog, dragging its leash, ran in front of and then around a woman, tripping her with the leash. Personal injuries caused by a dog jumping and pushing a person down, or a person tripping over a dog are recoverable.
Does Dog Bite Law Apply to Other Animals?
A cat scratches a woman seriously enough to require a trip to the emergency room. But most strict liability statutes specifically apply to dogs. So, this case defaults back to requiring proof of dangerous propensities.
Most strict liability statutes apply only to dogs. Other pets, domesticated animals or kept wild animals are not included and different rules apply.
Who Does the Law Apply to?
By now, you’ve likely noticed reference to the dog owner or keeper. Those held liable are not just the owner, but can also be a keeper or person in possession of the dog. A keeper is defined as someone who ‘harbors’ a dog with an “assumption of custody, management and control of the dog.” So, “vet-techs”, trainers and dog walkers potentially fit the role of keeper subject to liability for dog-inflicted injuries.
Dog Bite Cases – Final Issues
As of this writing 17 states still have the old negligence standard in dog bite cases. The statutes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire are fairly typical. However, these laws do vary from state to state. These are the 2 states in which I am licensed.
The phrase “strict liability” does not mean “automatic recovery”. Thorny issues can rear their ugly heads. So, it’s wise for a victim injured by a dog to retain an experienced attorney in the jurisdiction.
Homeowners insurance usually covers dog bites. However, some insurers exclude certain breeds, such as pit bulls. In those cases, the owner or keeper can face personal liability for their dog’s bad conduct.
[Note: The laws referenced in this article are, in Massachusetts, MGL c. 140 § 155, and in New Hampshire, RSA 466:19.]