Liability of Dog Owners

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What Is the Liability of a Dog Owner?

Dog bite liability depends on the city and state where the bite occurs. In many states, such as California, Florida and Massachusetts, simply owning a dog makes the owner liable for the dog's conduct. Some other states, however, such as New York, Texas and Oregon, hold that the owner is only liable if he or she had reason to know or should have known that the dog was ill-behaved.

If you live in a state where simply owning a dog makes you liable for its conduct, it does not necessarily mean that you are liable for all dog bites. There are certain situations in which you will not be held liable. These situations include where the victim:

What Is “Provocation” in Dog Liability?

“Provocation” is any behavior that may scare, agitate, or otherwise cause a dog to bite a person when it normally would not have bitten anyone. In other words, the victim of the dog bite was the cause of their own injury. Note that the provocation need not be malicious. The victim could not intend to provoke the dog, but still cause it to snap. Examples of non-malicious provocation include accidentally stepping on the dog’s tail or petting the dog when the dog is eating.

Young children, typically below the age of seven, pose a unique situation with regard to liability. Children in that age group often try to play with dogs in a manner the dog may not agree with. This includes attempting to ride the dog or trying to make funny faces at the dog. States will differ as to whether liability lies with the owner of the dog to keep the dog away from children or with the parents of the children to make sure they do not play with dogs.

Can Veterinarians Sue Pet Owners?

Veterinarians are typically prevented from suing pet owners if the pets bite the veterinarian. This is due to a number of reasons. First, veterinarians, by their very profession, assume a certain amount of risk when working with animals. Second, a veterinarian, when treating an animal, may inadvertently provoke the dog. Finally, some courts hold that veterinarians, upon receiving custody of the dog, becomes its temporary owner, removing liability from the actual owner for the dog’s behavior while the dog is in the veterinarian’s care.

There are a few exceptions to the liability barrier. If the owner fails to warn the veterinarian that the dog is unusually ill-tempered, the owner may become liable for the veterinarian’s injury. The veterinarian’s employees may sue the veterinarian if their employer fails to properly protect the employee from unnecessary risks posed by the dog.

Can I Be Liable If My Dog Injures Another Pet?

An owner can be liable if their pet injuries another person’s pet. The lawsuit would be damage or loss to property because pets are considered property. If your pet is under attack, you may attempt to separate the animals, but excess force is illegal. In other words, an owner cannot kill the animal to rescue their own pet if the situation does not warrant it. Killing the animal would be considered animal cruelty.

The only exception is for livestock, as farmers and ranchers are often legally permitted to kill dogs that may harm their herd.

How Can I Protect Myself from Being Sued in the Future?

It may be wise to consider getting insurance that protects against dog bites and other damages inflicted by a dog. There are several kinds of insurance that you can get, but make sure that the policy you are considering does not exclude canine damages. Common forms of insurance include: 

Will Specific Breeds of Dogs Make Me More Liable For Suits?

Although a bite from any dog can make its owner liable for the injury, some dogs are considered more dangerous due to their nature. As such, towns and cities often have laws limiting, if not outright banning, ownership of pitbulls and rottweilers. Courts have often upheld these laws as a valid exercise of the state’s police powers.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If your dog has bitten someone and you are concerned about being sued, it may be wise to speak with a personal injury lawyer. Working with an experienced personal injury attorney can help you understand your rights and obligations, as well as help you deal with the complicated legal system.

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Last Modified: 01-30-2017 09:54 PM PST

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