FAQ - Dog Bite Law

Discussion in 'Use of the Law Forum & News' started by Michael Wechsler, Aug 20, 2001.

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  1. Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler Law Topic Starter Administrator Staff Member

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    Question: If my dog bites someone else, to what extent will I be held responsible?

    Answer: History traditionally protected the dog owner from immediate liability. In states such as New York and Pennsylvania, it is still the law that a dog owner is not liable unless the dog demonstrates a "vicious propensity." This is known as the "one free bite" rule, whereby the owner becomes liable once the dog had prior bitten a person or had demonstrated some other vicious behavior. A "beware of dog" sign or barking at passersby would probably not be a sufficient showing of a "vicious propensity."

    States like California do not have a "one free bite" rule. They impose liability on the owner and, in certain cases where there is negligence, may also impose liability upon a custodian, non-owner of a dog. A violation of a state or city "leash law" will probably consitute the requisite amount of negligence. In some states such as California, a dog owner might be held liable in "strict liability" for merely owning the dog! However, liability can be limited in most instances if the victim (1) was a trespasser, or (2) contributed to the danger through negligent or disregarding warnings that the dog was dangerous.

    Statue of Limitations
    Most states impose a limit of two (Hawaii) to three (New York) years to bring a suit against an owner/custodian for dog bites.

    Dog Owner Checklist:
    • Leash or control your dog - it is never a good idea to let your dog run loose, especially if there are local leash laws;
    • Keep your dog vaccinated - most states require that vaccinations are kept up to date;
    • Warnings may be a good idea - a "beware of dog" sign might reduce or negate liability of a dog owner if the victim disregarded a warning or who acted negligently. As stated above, New York does not penalize an owner for such a sign. In some states (Hawaii), there may be an imposition upon the owner to give adequate warnings.
    Dog Bite Victim Checklist:
    • Check for local leash and dog bite laws;
    • Check for local vaccination laws;

    Recent Famous Case: In San Francisco, CA, Diane Whipple (33) was mauled and killed by a Presa Carnario attack dog owned by two Pacific Heights attorneys. The owners claimed that the dog was friendly and that a valiant attempt had been made to prevent the attack, which was later described by a hearing officer as testimony that was not complete or truthful. The adopted son of the attorney couple was incarcerated and also the reputed leader of a prison gang called the "Aryan Brotherhood." The son's cell mate, jailed for murder, was allegedly involved in being in the dog business which sold the attorneys the friendly attack dog. The lesbian lover of the deceased is suing the dog owners in civil court for wrongful death. In this instance, CA law dictates strict liability for dog bites. Additionally, liability would also extend for (i) negligent handling of the dogs, and (ii) common law strict liability for keeping and/or controlling a dog with dangerous propensities.

    Remember -- every state and locality has its own laws and/or case law that would govern how liability is imposed for dog bites.

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    Last edited: Sep 3, 2001
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