Dear Labby, Can I be sued if my dog bites someone?
We have a dog who can be aggressive in certain circumstances. We work hard on her training and have made great strides, but she is still very protective of her home and her yard. I worry about someone entering the yard unexpectedly and being bitten by her. We have posted several “Beware of Dog” signs and I wonder if that protects us from being sued if she hurts someone. We warned them, shouldn’t that protect us?
Don’t Sue me Sue.
This is really a tricky question and since we are not lawyers and don’t play one on TV, I hesitate to answer. I will however point you to some resources I found that might give you a bit more guidance.
The website http://www.nolo.com has some very good information and the most pertinent quote I lifted from there relative to signage is as follow:
The same goes for warning signs. Someone who ignores a prominent “Beware of Dog” sign is probably not going to be able to blame the dog’s owner for any injuries. For example, a Maryland delivery man ignored a “Guard Dog on Duty” sign at a warehouse and was bitten by a German shepherd that most definitely was on duty. He sued but lost. A court concluded that he knowingly risked injury. (Benton v. Aquarium, Inc., 489 A.2d 549 (Md. App. 1985).)
From my research I learned there is no Federal ruling around dog bites, so each state has their own laws relative to liability. They seem to fall into two categories:
- One ‘free bite” meaning the owner cannot be held liable for the first bite as there was no expectation that the dog may harm someone and so they can’t be held liable. That’s assuming the owner wasn’t negligent and that there truly was no expectation, meaning the dog was not overtly aggressive, did not regularly snap at people, etc. After that first bite though, the owner is liable.
- Strict liability, where the owner is liable no matter what, the fact of ownership assigns the liability. There are a few protections in these cases, such as if your dog bites a trespasser, or if the dog was provoked.
Another good resource is the Animal Law & Historical Center which has a large section on dog bites and the law.
They make this point: Nearly all states have some laws that govern what can be termed “dangerous dog” or “vicious dog” laws. These laws outline what constitutes a “dangerous dog” or even a “potentially dangerous dog” and under what circumstances an owner will be liable for the actions of such dogs. Moreover, some states impose what is called “strict liability” on dog owners for any injury resulting from a dog deemed dangerous regardless of any knowledge of the dog’s tendencies. These strict liability laws may also limit the ability of the owner to claim a defense to the action. In other words, the law may state that the owner is liable regardless of whether the person who was bitten was trespassing on the owner’s property or whether the owner knew the dog was vicious.
It’s important to understand the regulations and laws of your state and they provide some good insights here: laws by state.
The bottom line is that if you have a potentially dangerous dog, you need to be an educated and proactive owner and you should take every precaution that you can to protect the people your dog comes into contact with. An not just to protect yourself from a lawsuit, but to protect that innocent person or child who may be injured.
Good luck and keep us posted.
A little of “that” for This ‘N That Thursday. In case you didn’t see it, I created a list of all the Pet Blog Hops and Special Event Hops in an effort to keep myself organized (a New Year’s Resolution). I’ve shared it here, so feel free. If I’ve missed anything or if you are planning a new Hop, please let me know and I will try to keep this up to date.