Most states impose statutory strict liability for dog attacks, making the owner of a dog legally liable to a victim who was bitten. In the United States, dog bite statutes imposing strict liability date back to the 1700's. See, for example, the statement of the United States District Court in Handy v. Uniroyal, Inc., 327 F. Supp. 596 (US Dist. Court, D. Delaware 1971): "Strict liability for damages caused by trespassing animals has been the law of Delaware, by legislative enactment, since 1770. 13 Geo. II, 1 Del.Laws, Ch. 70, pp. 180-182, now codified as 25 Del.C. § 1302." Strict liability for dog bites falls in and out of favor, as evidenced by the experience of Michigan, which repealed its strict liability dog bite statute in 1929, and then, in 1939, enacted an even stronger one. (See Nicholes v. Lorenz, 237 N.W.2d 468, 396 Mich. 53 (MI, 1976).)
Before continuing, the term "dog bite statute" needs to be clarified. As used throughout Dog Bite Law (www.dogbitelaw.com), the term "dog bite statute" refers to any state statute, county ordinance, or city ordinance which provides a remedy for a dog bite, harm caused by a dog (whether or not from a bite), or harm caused by a domestic animal (any type of domestic animal, and any kind of harm, whether or not from a bite). It is always to be kept in mind that dog bite law in general is the result of state statutes, county ordinances, city ordinances, case law, and authoritative texts such as the Restatement of Torts, which is why the term "dog bite statute" must include state, county and city laws.
As a general rule, a dog does not get "one free bite" in a statutory strict liability state, the prior behavior of the dog is not an issue, and it is unnecessary to prove that the owner or handler was negligent. The dog bite statutes differ in their scope; depending upon the jurisdiction, the dog bite statute might apply to non-bite injuries as well as bites, to non-owners who have custody, control or a financial interest in the dog (i.e., a "keeper" or "harborer"), and/or to injuries suffered to property or by animals owned by third parties. They might even require proof of negligence or scienter (in which event they are "mixed law statutes," discussed below).
The term "statutory strict liability" is used to distinguish this cause of action from "common law strict liability" or the "scienter" cause of action, discussed in another section of Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA. Every state permits claims based on common law strict liability or scienter, but only states with a dog bite statute add an additional cause of action for statutory strict liability. Violation of a dog bite statute results in strict liability, not negligence or negligence per se. Stroop v. Day, 896 P.2d 439, 271 Mont. 314 (Mont. 1995); Seim v. Garavalia (Minn. 1981), 306 N.W.2d 806, 810.
The dog bite statutes vary greatly from state to state, in wording and interpretation. For example, Minnesota courts have held that the dog bite statute imposes absolute liability, excepting only provocation and failure to act peacefully. On the other hand, a few states have combined strict liability with other legal grounds and/or have put restrictions on their strict liability dog bite statutes. In Pennsylvania and Colorado, for example, the dog bite statute applies to a bite that causes severe injury but not one that causes little injury. Further complicating things, the Colorado statute makes the dog owner strictly liable only for "economic losses," not pain, suffering and other non-pecuniary damages, which can be awarded only if the victim can meet the proof requirements of a "one bite state." In Maine, the dog bite statute applies only to bites that occur off the property of the owner or keeper. In New York, the dog bite statute covers only medical bills, for which reason it is classified as a "mixed dog bite statute" (see below). The animal liability statutes of the District of Columbia apply only to situations where the animal is at large, and only say that in such circumstances the victim does not have to prove that the dog owner had a vicious temperament.
The most common exceptions to liability are these:
- The victim was a trespasser
- The victim was a veterinarian or canine professional who was treating the dog at the time of the incident
- The victim was committing a felony or other crime against the owner of the dog
- The victim provoked the dog by physically abusing it
- The victim assumed the risk (i.e., explicitly or implicitly consented) to being bitten
- The dog was assisting the police or the military at the time of the incident
The exceptions also vary greatly from state to state. Some states allow no exceptions at all to the wording of the statute. For example, Montana does not permit the defense of comparative negligence or any other affirmative defenses; the only permissible defenses are provocation and trespass because these are mentioned in the statute itself. Stroop v. Day, 271 Mont. 314 (1995); see also, Quellos v. Quellos, 643 N.E.2d 1173 (Ohio Ct. App. 1994); Massey v. Colaric, 725 P.2d 1099 (Ariz. 1986); Seim v. Garavalia, 306 N.W.2d 806, 811-12 (Minn. 1981); Nicholes v. Lorenz, 237 N.W.2d 468 (Mich. 1976). Other states have unique exceptions, such as Florida, which makes the dog bite statute inapplicable if the dog owner had posted "Bad Dog" signs on his property. Again, note that there may still be liability under other legal theories even if the dog bite statute does not apply in a particular case. An attorney should be consulted if the dog bite statute seems to not apply. For more about this, see Does An Adult Need a Lawyer For a Dog Bite Claim?, and Should Parents Get a Lawyer For Their Injured Child?
There are several states that have incorporated the "one bite rule" into their dog bite law in a significant way, despite having statutes that impose liability for dog bites. These states are referred to as "mixed dog bite statute states." Georgia, Tennessee and New York are example of such states. In New York, for instance, the dog bite statute provides that a dog owner is responsible only for paying the victim's medical bills; to collect the full range of damages, such as for loss of income if the victim is permanently disabled, the plaintiff must prove that the dog previously behaved viciously toward a human being. The District of Columbia is a "mixed state" because its animal liability laws rest on the one bite rule except where the dog owner's negligence resulted in the attacking dog being at large.
Most states permit the dog owner to assert defenses other than those specified in the dog bite statute itself. See, i.e., Louisiana (Howard v. Allstate Insurance Co., 520 So.2d 715 (La. 1988), Arkansas (Ambort v. Nowlin, 709 S.W.2d 407 (Ark. 1986)), and New Jersey (Budai v. Teague, 515 A.2d 822 (N.J. Super.L. 1986). For this reason, it is most accurate to refer to even the most uncompromising dog bite statute as one which provides "almost strict liability" as opposed to pure strict liability.
Other states impose conditions upon a victim who attempts to employ the dog bite statute. For example, in Massachusetts the courts have held that the victim has the burden of proving that he was not "committing a trespass or other tort" and was not "teasing, tormenting or abusing" the dog. Sullivan v. Ward, 304 Mass. 614, 615-616; Curran v. Burkhardt, 310 Mass. 466, 467; Rossi v. DelDuca, 344 Mass. 66, 69. This burden can work a grave injustice upon a person who was mauled so severely that he cannot remember exactly what occurred.
Procedural and other laws can restrict a victim's right to bring a dog bite claim. The most important of these is the statute of limitations, which places an outside time limit upon all claims. See Beware of the Statute of Limitations. But even custody of a child can be a consideration in a dog bite case. The parent having legal and physical custody of a child is entitled to bring an action for the child's personal injuries from a dog bite. If the other parent also brings an action, the parent having total custody can have the other parent's action dismissed. Murphy v. Bergo, 400 N.W.2d 387 (MI Ct. of App., 1987).
Do not assume that your state has established any of the "usual" exceptions to liability. You must research the availability of any particular defense in your own state.
Set forth below are the 36 jurisdictions (35 states and the District of Columbia) that have dog bite statutes or more general animal liability statutes that cover dog bites. In addition to these states, there are counties and cities in the USA that have ordinances which impose strict liability on dog owners for bites and non-bite injuries. To learn more, click on the name of the state you are interested in. If you do not see it on this list, type its name into the Google search box at the top of this page, and find it that way. It is important to note that even if your state does not have a strict liability dog bite statute, your county or city might have one. Therefore one must always retain a lawyer for a dog bite case, or research the law of the applicable state, county and city.
- District of Columbia *
- Georgia *
- Hawaii *
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New York *
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- Tennessee *
- Washington (state)
- West Virginia
* Please note that the states listed above with asterisks (*) have statutes that combine strict liability with elements of the one bite rule, but primarily rely upon the one bite rule. These are referred to as "mixed dog bite statute states" and are discussed in greater detail on other pages of Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA.