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. Alabama is a contributory negligence state, however. 

The one bite rule

As in all states, the so-called "one bite rule" (scienter) is a ground whether the defendant is the dog owner or another person, such as a landlord. 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).

The "one bite rule" is codified as section 3-1-3 of the Code of Alabama 1975.

Note: to read any Alabama code section online, start with the Code of Alabama 1975, click "Title 3," click "Title 3," click the second number of the code section (in this case, "1"), and then select the statute itself. 

The key issue in a case based on the one bite rule is "scienter," namely the defendant's actual or constructive knowledge that the dog had dangerous propensities. Rucker v. Goldstein, 497 So. 2d 491 (Ala. 1986). 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. Here are examples:

  • 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 is sufficient. White v. Law, 454 So. 2d 515 (Ala. 1984).
  • The owners' knowledge that the attacking dog was a pit bull is a sufficient 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.
  • Evidence that a defendant's dogs had chased and barked at people riding bicycles and/or walking, as well as at automobiles, is sufficient to prove that the owner aware that her dogs have 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).
  • Fighting with other dogs is not sufficient to prove knowledge of dangerousness to people. Kent v. Sims, 460 So. 2d 144 (Ala. 1984).

The one bite rule is a common law doctrine which originated in England and was adopted by virtually all of the American states. The Alabama Supreme Court adopted English common law during its first term in 1820. (Daniel Meador, The Supreme Court of Alabama - Its Cahaba Beginning, 1820-1825, Alabama Law Review (2010) 61:5:891 at p. 901.) For more details about liability based on the one bite rule, see The One Bite Rule here at DogBiteLaw.com. 

Dog bite statute

Alabama has a dog bite statute which covers bites and any other injuries that occur either on the dog owner's property or when the dog pursues the victim from the property. Alongside this liability statute is a limitation of damages statute which says the victim will recover only "actual expenses" if the dog owner "had no knowledge of any circumstances indicating such dog to be or to have been vicious or dangerous or mischievous."

The Alabama dog bite statute is section 3-6-1 of Alabama Statutes (see the Note to learn how to read Alabama statutes online): 

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.

Section 3-6-1 applies only to the owner of the dog, not its keeper. Humphries v. Rice, 600 So.2d 975, 976 (1992). 

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 effect of these two statutes was discussed in Rucker v. Goldstein, 497 So.2d 491, 493 (1986):

Under those statutes, the injury must occur upon the property owned or controlled by the dog's master, or after the victim leaves this property and is immediately pursued therefrom by the dog. Additionally, the statute shifts the burden of proof of scienter. If the defendant is able to prove that he had no knowledge of his dog's vicious propensities, he will be liable only to the extent of the expenses actually incurred by the person so injured.

Negligence

Alabama conflates the doctrines of negligence and the one bite rule. To recover for negligence, a victim is required to prove scienter. "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). 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."

 

Alabama courts have held that keeping a high-risk dog constitutes negligence. Humphries v. Rice, 600 So.2d 975, 978 (Ala., 1992). 

Alabama follows the doctrine of negligence per se. Watts v. Montgomery Traction Co., 175 Ala. 102, 105 (1912). It can be the basis for a plaintiff's cause of action or a defendant's affirmative defense. (Ibid. at p. 106.) Nevertheless, the owner of a dog running freely on a highway is not liable unless the victim can prove the dog was placed on the highway knowingly or willfully. Williams v. Hill, 658 So.2d 381, 384 (Ala., 1995).

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).

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.)

Contributory negligence

In Alabama, contributory negligence serves as a complete bar to recover for simple negligence; however, it is not a defense to acts of wantonness or willfulness. Golden v. McCurry, 392 So. 2d 815, 817 (Ala. 1980). Contributory negligence is negligence on the part of the plaintiff that proximately contributes to his or her injury. Cooper v. Bishop Freeman Co., 495 So. 2d 559, 563 (Ala. 1986).

Being faced with a sudden emergency will excuse a victim's negligence. Tillis Trucking Co. v. Moses, 748 So. 2d 874, 885 (Ala. 1999). Also, a defendant's failure to act on the last clear chance to avoid an accident will excuse a victim's negligence. Baker v. Helms, 527 So. 2d 1241, 1244 (Ala. 1988).

 

 

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