A dog bite victim in Alabama can recover compensation under the dog bite statutes and the doctrines of negligence, negligence per se, scienter, and intentional tort. The statutes have unusual features (some good, some bad) when compared to similar laws throughout the USA.


Overview

Alabama provides several grounds on which the dog bite victim can recover compensation. There are dog bite statutes with some unusual features. A dog owner will be held liable for bites and any other injuries by his dog. However, the statutes only establish liability when the victim was bitten on the dog owner's property, or the dog pursued the victim off the dog owner's property. There also is an unusual "mitigation" law which provides a unique defense for the dog owner: if he "had no knowledge of any circumstances indicating such dog to be or to have been vicious or dangerous or mischievous" then he will be held liable only for the "actual expenses" incurred by the victim. Cases have held, however, that a number of circumstances, such as simply owning a pit bull, provide sufficient evidence that the dog owner had the requisite knowledge of viciousness.

General negligence also is a ground, provided that the victim can prove scienter (i.e., knowledge that the dog had bitten someone in the past or acted like it wanted to). Negligence per se for violating an animal control law pertaining to safety is another ground. As in all states, scienter is a ground in an of itself whether the defendant is the dog owner or another person, such as the landlord. Landlords, landowners and property management companies can be held liable for negligent acts, provided that they knew or should have known that the dog was vicious.

Dog bite statute

The Alabama dog bite statute is section 3-6-1 of Alabama Statutes (if you click on the link in this sentence, select the tab for "Code of Ala" and then click on "Title 3: Animals"):

If any dog shall, without provocation, bite or injure any person who is at the time at a place where he or she has a legal right to be, the owner of such dog shall be liable in damages to the person so bitten or injured, but such liability shall arise only when the person so bitten or injured is upon property owned or controlled by the owner of such dog at the time such bite or injury occurs or when such person has been immediately prior to such time on such property and has been pursued therefrom by such dog.

Be sure to read all of the dog bite statutes in Chapter 6 because they provide essential definitions. The mitigation of damages statute is 3-6-3:

The owner of such dog shall, however, be entitled to plead and prove in mitigation of damages that he had no knowledge of any circumstances indicating such dog to be or to have been vicious or dangerous or mischievous, and, if he does so, he shall be liable only to the extent of the actual expenses incurred by the person so bitten or injured as a result of the bite or injury.

The one bite rule and negligence

In cases seeking damages for injuries sustained from a dog bite where the dog bite statutes do not apply, the plaintiff must plead and prove "scienter," namely that the owner of the dog had knowledge of, or had reason to know of, the dog's dangerous propensities. Rucker v. Goldstein, 497 So. 2d 491 (Ala. 1986); Allen v. Whitehead, 423 So. 2d 835 (Ala. 1982). The crucial issue is "whether the owner knows, or had reason to know, of the animal's dangerous propensities." Allen v. Whitehead, 423 So. 2d 835 (Ala. 1982). If the plaintiff fails to meet the burden of proof, the defendant is not liable.

The dog owner's testimony that she was afraid that her dog might be hostile to a very young child because the dog had been teased by other, older children was sufficient to overcome the dog owner's motion for summary judgment on the issue of knowledge of dangerousness in a dog bite case. White v. Law, 454 So. 2d 515 (Ala. 1984).

Fighting with other dogs was not sufficient to prove knowledge of dangerousness to people. Kent v. Sims, 460 So. 2d 144 (Ala. 1984).

The owners' knowledge that the attacking dog was a pit bull can be the basis of liability. In Edgar v. Riley, 725 So.2d 982 (Ala.Civ.App. 1998), the owners of a pit bull were deemed to be aware of its dangerous propensity to attack without warning, even though it never had done so in the past, thereby supporting a jury's finding of civil liability for a dog bite.

A dog bite injury to a child raises the issue of the duty of care that a dog owner or property owner owes toward children who are guests on the premises. A child who regularly visits a friend and was welcome there, never having been forbidden to go there, is deemed to have the consent and permission of the owner of the property, and is a licensee on the property; as such, the owner is under a duty not to negligently injure him and, therefore, can be held liable when the child is bitten by a dog on the property. Edgar v. Riley, 725 So.2d 982 (Ala.Civ.App. 1998).

Alabama makes no practical distinction between the one bite rule and the cause of action for general negligence. See, i.e., the following statement by the Alabama Supreme Court: "It is well settled in Alabama that an owner of a domestic animal is not liable for an injury caused by the animal unless it is shown that the owner had previous knowledge of the animal's dangerous or mischievous propensities." Williams v. Hill, 658 So.2d 381 (Ala., 1995), citing Davis v. Ulin, 545 So.2d 14, 16 (Ala. 1989); Rucker v. Goldstein, 497 So.2d 491, 493 (Ala. 1986); Durden v. Barnett, 7 Ala. 169, 170 (1844). See also Owen v. Hampson, 258 Ala. 228, 62 So. 2d 245 (1952). The early case of Durden v. Barnett & Harris, 7 Ala. 169, 170 (1844), set out the rule as follows:

"It is said the owner of domestic animals, not necessarily inclined to commit mischief, such as dogs, horses, etc., is not liable for an injury committed by them, unless it can be shown that he previously had notice of the animal's mischievous propensity; or, that the injury was attributable to some neglect on his part.... From this it would seem to follow that it was necessary to allege and prove a scienter."

That having been said, however, Alabama will hold a dog owner liable for the variety of negligence referred to as negligence per se. This is from dicta in a case holding that if a dog trespasses but there is no violation of a local animal control law such as a leash law or running at large law, the dog bite statute cannot be used and therefore the issue will be whether scienter or negligence can be proved. Rucker v. Goldstein, 497 So. 2d 491 (Ala. 1986) ("It is undisputed in this case that the attack on Mrs. Rucker happened off the owner's premises, some nine miles from appellee's home, so that this action is governed by the rules of common law negligence.")

Premises liability (landlord liability)

In a case against a landlord, it was held that the presence of a tenant's vicious dog in areas shared by other tenants constitutes a "dangerous condition" and that a landlord must exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries from such a dangerous condition. Gentle v. Pine Valley Apartments, 631 So. 2d 928 (Ala. 1994). Notice to the premises owner, either direct or imputed, of the dangerous condition is the sine qua non of liability. (Id.) Therefore, in the absence of notice, there can be no liability. (Id.)

Non-bite injury

Non-bite injuries are governed by the common law, also referred to as "scienter" or the one bite rule. It holds that an owner of a domestic animal is not liable for an injury caused by the animal unless it can be shown that the owner had previous knowledge of the animal's mischievous propensity. Durden v. Barnett, 7 Ala. 169 (1844), followed in Buckner v. Goldstein, 497 So. 2d 491 (Ala. 1986). Evidence that a defendant's dogs had chased and barked at people riding bicycles and/or walking, as well as at automobiles, was sufficient to prove that she was aware that her dogs had the propensity to chase and bark at people and cause a fleeing person to fall and incur injury. Davis v. Ulin, 523 So. 2d 365 (Ala. 1988).

However, keep in mind that Alabama is one of the states that adheres to the ancient rule of contributory negligence. Therefore, if negligence of the victim was one of the causes of the accident, the victim will not be entitled to any compensation at all.
 

 

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