In a legal context, dog owners are generally liable for any injuries that their pet may cause. However, temporary caretakers of the animal may also be held liable if the dog or animal causes injury to someone else. The laws associated with dog bites specifically vary from state to state, and can also vary at the local level.
Local ordinances may define the term “dog owner” more broadly than the definition provided by state laws; as such, it is important to be aware of the rules and regulations in your specific jurisdiction.
In addition to owners being held liable for their dogs, the following circumstances may create liability for other associated parties:
- Parents or guardians of a dog owner who is under the age of 18 years;
- A person who is not the owner and who has control of the dog, or is the caretaker of the dog, including dog walkers, dog sitters, dog groomers, and kennel owners;
- Vet technicians;
- Shelter employees;
- Property owners who allow stray dogs to live on their property;
- Employers who allow dogs onto the premises; and/or
- Landlords who were aware of the fact that the dog was dangerous, but failed to act accordingly.
To reiterate, who may be held liable for what can vary dramatically according to the circumstances. An example of this would be how a vet technician will probably not be held liable if they are holding the leash of a dog that bites, when the dog’s owner is right next to them. Simply put, it is difficult to determine if you would be held liable until the law of your area is applied to the facts of the case.
Many states have strict liability dog bite statutes in place that hold owners financially responsible for injuries associated with a bite or attack. These statutes go on to define “owner” as anyone who is currently keeping the animal. Harboring an animal may also be included in the definition of who is responsible, and could be a separate statute from those that hold owners liable.
Local laws may define a dog keeper or dog sitter more broadly than the laws of the state. In some cities, a dog owner is considered to be anyone who:
- Has custody of an animal;
- Keeps the animal;
- Harbors the animal; and/or
- Maintains or cares for the animal.
An example of this would be how in Arizona, a person is said to be harboring a dog if they have kept the dog for more than six consecutive days.
Courts in other states have varying rulings in terms of who is considered to be a dog keeper and a dog sitter. An example of this would be how courts in both Indiana and Connecticut have ruled that people who walk someone else’s dog as a favor are not necessarily considered to be that dog’s keeper.
Can A Dog Sitter Be Held Liable For Dog Bites?
Recently, several companies offering dog walking and sitting services have become popular and widespread. An example of this would be the company Rover. This is relevant because anyone who is in control of an animal may be held liable for injuries if the animal harms someone while under their care. Simply giving a dog commands does not generally constitute having control over the animal.
When Can I Be Held Liable For Injuries Caused By An Animal?
To reiterate, every state maintains different laws concerning criminal liability for pet owners if their animal attacks or injures another person. In many jurisdictions, an owner is subject to criminal penalties if their dog injures someone, and the dog is considered “dangerous” or “vicious” under the local law. Criminal penalties could involve jail time.
An example of this would be how in California, a dog will generally be considered “dangerous” and/or “vicious” if one of the following is true:
- The dog, while off of the owner’s property, has acted aggressively in such a way that has forced another person to defend themselves on two separate occasions in the last 3 years;
- The dog has previously bitten another person without provocation;
- The dog, while off of the owner’s property, has bitten, injured, or killed another domestic animal twice in the last 3 years;
- The dog’s owner has been convicted of a dog-fighting offense;
- The dog has aggressively inflicted severe injury on a person;
- The dog has killed a person; and/or
- The dog is of a breed that has been designated as dangerous, and the owner has failed to follow regulations for keeping dangerous dogs. It is imperative to note that what constitutes a “dangerous breed” can change, as such criteria is not always based on science and statistics but rather bias and stereotyping.
Dog owners are generally subject to assault charges if:
- They intentionally cause their dog to bite someone;
- They know that their dog tends to bite or injure others without provocation, and fails to reasonably restrain the dog or take preventative measures such as placing a warning harness on their dog; and/or
- The dog is declared to be “vicious” or dangerous according to local law, and the owner fails to reasonably restrain the dog.
Can A Dog Owner Face Homicide Charges?
- Dog Owner Charged With Manslaughter: In some jurisdictions, a dog owner can be charged with manslaughter or a similar charge if they know that their dog is dangerous, meaning the dog has acted aggressively or injured others in the past, but failed to take reasonable steps in order to protect the public from the dangerous dog. It becomes a question of, did the owner negligently or recklessly allow the dog to be unsupervised in a public area? A dog owner may also be charged with manslaughter if the dog attacks a person, and causes their death;
- Dog Owner Charged With Murder: A dog owner may be charged with murder in some jurisdictions under two different circumstances:
- The dog owner intentionally directs their dog to kill another person; or
- The dog is classified as a deadly weapon, and the owner’s negligence or recklessness causes their dog to kill a person. This is the same as the charge of manslaughter with the added factor that the dog is considered to be a dangerous weapon according to the local court standards. Using a deadly weapon when committing a crime is known as an aggravating factor, and generally leads to a more serious charge. Some examples of factors that might lead the court to classify a dog as a dangerous weapon include whether the dog was intentionally trained to attack and inflict injury, as well as the breed of the dog.
Additionally, dog owners can face charges of destruction or concealment of evidence if they destroy or conceal a dog after it commits an attack.
Do I Need An Attorney For Help With Dog Bites?
If your dog has bit or attacked another person, or if you were in charge of someone else’s dog when they bit or attacked another person, you should consult with an experienced and local dog bite lawyer. An attorney can inform you of your legal rights and options according to your state’s specific laws, and will also be able to represent you in court as needed.