According to the National Centers for Disease Control, each year dogs bite more than 4.5 million people. Of those, more than 750,000 have bites serious enough to require medical treatment. To protect the public from undue harm from dog attacks, all 50 states have passed dog bite laws in one form or another.
These laws are incredibly diverse. It's virtually impossible to list every state's law along with the exceptions and variations. To simplify, we'll discuss the two main types of dog bite laws in the United States. They are the one-bite law and the strict liability law.
In those states following the one-bite rule, a dog owner isn't necessarily liable the first time his dog bites someone. These laws presume domesticated dogs with no history of violence are by nature non-violent. Also, the states presume their owners don't have a reason to believe their dogs have a tendency to bite people. Therefore, the law forgives the dog's first bite.
One-bite states include: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming.
Over the years, court cases, qualifying state statutes, and local city and town ordinances have continued to erode the one-bite laws. Today, the one-bite rule is a misnomer. It's virtually impossible to categorize any state as a pure one-bite state. The gradual erosions have essentially gutted the purity of the one-bite rule.
Adding to the erosion is the concept of negligence as it affects dog owner liability. In one-bite states, when the victim of a dog bite can prove the dog owner was negligent, the laws waive (set aside) the dog owner's exemption from liability.
The primary proof of owner negligence is his violation of a standing state or local leash law. Secondary proof can be when the victim shows the dog owner knew or should have known of his dog's tendency toward violence.
Example: Mailman attacked by German Shepherd
Roger lives in Kansas. He owned a three-year-old German Shepherd named Kimber. Kimber had a peaceable demeanor. In the three years since his birth, he never bit anyone. One day, as the mailman approached the front door, Kimber broke loose from the yard. As he did, he ran up and bit the letter carrier on the leg. The bite was serious enough to require 13 stitches. The postal worker filed a lawsuit claiming Roger was negligent by permitting Kimber to break loose and bite him.
Roger's attorneys filed a motion in court to dismiss the mailman's case, claiming under the Kansas one-bite law Roger wasn't liable for the carrier's injury. The carrier's attorneys filed a motion in opposition to Roger's motion, claiming an exception to the one-bite law. The mailman's exception claimed Roger should have known Kimber had a tendency for violence because of Kimber's breed. He claimed German Shepherds were by nature violent animals.
The court disagreed and granted Roger's motion for judgment to dismiss the case. In its decision, the court stated under the common law one-bite rule, Roger had no reason to believe Kimber had a tendency toward violence, especially because Kimber got along so well with children and never bit anyone until the postal worker.
Strict liability laws presume the dog's owner is liable for just about every injury his dog causes. In strict liability states, it doesn't matter whether the dog has a history of violence toward people or if the owner did everything possible to prevent his dog from hurting someone. With strict liability, if the dog injures a person, the dog owner is strictly liable.
There are three major exceptions to dog owner strict liability:
Example: Child mauled by Rottweiler
Louise lived in New York and owned a four-year-old Rottweiler named Jazz. (New York applies strict liability in dog bite cases.) Louise liked to take Jazz to a local dog park. In the four years since her birth, Jazz never showed a tendency toward violence. She was a favorite of local neighborhood children and ran freely among other dogs at the dog park.
One day while at the dog park, for no apparent reason and without any known provocation, Jazz mauled a six-year-old girl named Debbie. Debbie suffered serious injuries to her face and neck.
Debbie's parents sued Louise, claiming under New York's strict liability law Louise was liable for Debbie's injuries. Louise's attorneys filed a motion asking the court to dismiss Debbie's lawsuit, claiming Jazz never showed a tendency toward violence. Debbie's attorneys filed a motion in opposition, stating Jazz's failure to show previous violent tendencies was irrelevant under New York law. The court agreed, dismissing Louise's motion to dismiss.
In its decision, the court stated New York doesn't observe the one-bite rule. To do so would encourage dog owners to be less vigilant when restraining their dogs and consequently would lead to more unnecessary injuries.
Compounding one-bite and strict liability laws at the state level, there are also local government laws. State laws permit their intra-state government entities like cities, towns, villages, and other municipalities to enact their own dog-bite and leash laws.
As long as the laws don't contradict the state's dog-bite statutes, these intra-government entities can enact just about any laws they like that relate to public safety. These laws include everything from curbing (keeping the dog on a leash) and keeping dogs fenced at all times, to prohibiting dogs from remaining in cars alone when the outside temperature is too high.
Whether you live in a one-bite or strict liability state, you're responsible if your dog bites someone. Negligence law is complicated. Simply stated, negligence occurs when your actions or omissions concerning your dog fall beneath a prudent dog owner standard. A prudent dog owner is one who knows, or should know, the violent tendencies, if any, of his or her dog.
A dog owner is negligent if he fails to leash his dog or keep it fenced, especially knowing his dog has a tendency to jump on children, bite the letter carrier, or show other aggressive behavior. When a dog owner fails to take preventative action to stop his dog from injuring others, the dog owner is negligent and therefore liable - even in a one-bite state.
Example: Doberman Pinscher attacks jogger
Karen lived in New Mexico (a one-bite state). She owned a six-year-old Doberman Pinscher named Rusty. For the first five-and-a-half years, Rusty failed to show any violent behavior. During the past six months or so, Rusty's demeanor changed. He began to nip and snap at anyone who tried to pet him. This perplexed Karen, but she still allowed Rusty to run free next to her as she jogged each morning.
One day as Karen was jogging, Rusty veered away from the jogging path. As he did, he jumped on another jogger named Larry and mauled him. Larry sustained serious injuries. He filed a lawsuit against Karen, alleging negligence. Karen retained counsel and filed a motion asking the court to dismiss Larry's case based on New Mexico's one-bite rule.
Larry's attorneys filed a motion in opposition, claiming an exception to the one-bite rule. The exception was Karen's negligence. Larry's attorneys learned Karen had expressed to several of her friends she was concerned about Rusty's recent snapping at people. Although she showed concern, she failed to take any preventative measures to restrain Rusty.
The court granted Larry's motion in opposition, deciding not to dismiss his suit based on Karen's claim of exemption under the one-bite rule. In its opinion, the court stated although New Mexico was a one-bite state, there was sufficient evidence that Karen knew her dog had a tendency toward violence, even though it was recent.
Her knowledge of Rusty's recent behavior, and her failure to take appropriate action to prevent her dog from biting another person, was evidence of negligence. As a result, the court ruled in favor of Larry and against Karen.
Two important exceptions to dog-bite liability laws are contributory and comparative negligence. Contributory and comparative negligence lessens or wholly dismisses a dog owner's liability when a bite victim's actions contribute to his own injuries.
When it comes to dog bites, the most common form of victim contributory negligence is provocation. When a person taunts a dog, hits it with a stick, or otherwise excites the dog more than it already is, the dog owner may entirely escape liability if his dog bites the victim. In other cases, the victim taunting the dog may lessen the dog owner's liability.
Today, four states and the District of Columbia are pure contributory negligence states. The rest follow one form or another of comparative negligence law.
In those contributory states and D.C., if a victim of a dog bite contributes to his or her own injury in any way, the dog owner is completely free of liability. In the states practicing comparative negligence, the victim's contribution to his own injury may lessen any settlement he receives by the percentage of his own negligence.
Taunting results in pit bull attack
Susan lived in Maryland (a pure contributory negligence state). She owned a five-year-old pit bull named Buck. Susan was conscientious about keeping Buck in the yard. Although Buck once broke out of her yard and bit a passerby, it was an aberration.
One day, while Buck was in the yard, Susan's next door neighbor Pete, upset about Buck's continued barking, went over to the fence and began to taunt Buck. Pete took a stick and began to poke at his face through a small opening in the fence. After taunting and poking at Buck for several minutes, Buck broke through the fence and attacked Pete, seriously injuring him.
Pete filed a lawsuit against Susan, claiming her failure to repair the hole in her fence allowed Buck to break through. Susan's attorneys filed a general denial, claiming an affirmative defense (additional facts), which was Pete's contributory negligence in taunting and hitting Buck.
The court found in Susan's favor and dismissed Pete's lawsuit. In its decision, the court stated although Susan knew Buck had a tendency toward violence, Pete's taunting and hitting Buck contributed to his own injuries. His contribution, no matter how small, was sufficient under Maryland's contributory negligence rule to dismiss his lawsuit in its entirety against Susan.
Ignoring a warning
Albert lived in Rhode Island (a comparative negligence state). He owned a collie named Satchel. One day, while Albert walked Satchel, a passerby named Bob came upon them. Albert admonished Bob not to pet Satchel, since she had a tendency to nip at strangers. Ignoring Albert's warning, Bob placed his hand out toward Satchel to pet her. As he did, Satchel bit him, causing a deep gash which left a scar.
Bob sued Albert for $50,000, claiming negligence. Albert filed a general denial and stated as an affirmative defense that Bob's failure to listen to Albert's warning was comparative negligence. The judge agreed, stating he had to compare Bob's actions with Satchel's actions. The court decided Bob's actions amounted to 70 percent of his injuries. So, the court only awarded Bob $15,000.
Pit Bull Attacks Jogger
In this case a pit bull attacks a jogger in a public park. The dog owner did not have a dog bite insurance policy and paid the settlement out of his personal savings.
Woman Attacked at a Dog Adoption Center
In this dog bite claim, the plaintiff seeks damages for serious injuries after a dog she had considered adopting attacked her. The dog's lack of violent history was not a valid defense in this case.
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