A dog bite victim in Indiana can recover compensation under the doctrines of negligence, negligence per se, scienter, and intentional tort; additionally, there is compensation for mail carriers and others carrying out duties on behalf of the state.


Indiana dog bite liability rests on three possible grounds: negligence, the "one bite rule," and strict liability where the victim is carrying out a duty imposed by law. In the latter case, Indiana imposes strict liability on not only the owner, but also the possessor, keeper or harborer of the dog.

The dog bite statute provides as follows:

Chapter 12. Liability for Dog Bites

Sec. 1. If a dog, without provocation, bites any person who is peaceably conducting himself in any place where he may be required to go for the purpose of discharging any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States of America, the owner of such dog may be held liable for any damages suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness.

Sec. 2. As used in this chapter, "owner" means the owner of a dog. The term includes a possessor, keeper, or harborer of a dog.

It is a Class C infraction for an owner to allow a dog to stray from his property unless the dog was under the reasonable control of a person. Ind. Code 15-5-9-13. This could lead to liability on the ground of negligence (negligence per se liability).

The court decisions discuss the various ways that a dog bite victim can bring a claim. It has been held that a dog owner has a duty to keep the dog under reasonable care and control, even if the owner is unaware of any vicious tendencies in the dog. In Indiana, dogs and other domestic animals are presumed not to be dangerous. Even so, "animals are not necessarily entitled to one free bite before their owners are held liable in negligence." Hardsaw v. Courtney (Ind.Ct.App. 1999) 665 NE2d 1143, 1145. Rather:

[M]aintaining a dog in Indiana imposes on a dog owner the duty of reasonable care, even when the dog owner is unaware of the dog's vicious or dangerous propensities. Without knowledge of the dog's vicious or dangerous propensities, the owner may become liable for damages the dog causes where the owner is otherwise negligent in his manner of 'keeping and control' of the dog. Above all, an owner is bound to know a dog's natural propensities and use reasonable care to prevent injuries which might reasonably be expected from those propensities. The foregoing duties are imposed on the owner of a dog regardless of the dog bite victim's age or status. (Plesha v. Edmonds ex rel. Edmonds (Ind.Ct.App. 1999) 717 NE2d 981, 987.

Violation of the leash law constitutes negligence per se if the violation was a cause of the dog attack. Plesha v. Edmonds, supra.

A landowner cannot be held liable for damages caused by the renter's dog, unless the landowner had actual knowledge of the dangerous propensities of the dog. Merely escaping does not provide notice of, or constitute, a dangerous propensity. Baker v. Weather (1999) No. 49A05-9807-CV-381.

The courts have given the following definition of "dangerous propensity:"

This court has defined dangerous or vicious propensity as "a propensity or tendency of an animal to do any act which might endanger the safety of person or property in a given situation. It is the act of the animal and not in the state of mind of the animal from which the effects of a dangerous propensity must be determined." Royer v. Pryor, 427 N.E.2d1112, 1117 (Ind. Ct. App. 1981) (quoting Doe v. Barnett, 145 Ind.App. 542, 251 N.E.2d 688, 694, (1969), trans. denied; 3A C.J.S. Animals § 180 (1973)). After stating this definition in Royer, we held that it is not reasonable to attribute dangerous or vicious propensities to a dog "merely because he barks at strangers, because a person is afraid of the dog, or because a city ordinance requires a dog to be restrained at all times." Id.  (Baker v. Weather, No. 49A05-9807-CV-381.)

A person who is supervising a child may be liable in negligence if that person's dog bites the child, even if the dog had not exhibited a tendency to bite people prior to the incident. Vetor by Weesner v. Vetor, 634 N.E.2d 513, 516 (Ind. Ct. App. 1994). In Vetor, a child who was bitten by a dog while visiting her grandfather brought an action against her grandfather on the basis that he failed to use reasonable care for the child's safety. The trial court granted summary judgment for the grandfather. On appeal, the Court of Appeal held that the designated evidence raised a question for the jury as to whether the grandfather used reasonable care. It emphasized that the grandfather was the owner of the property, that the dog was on the premises, that both the dog and the child were under the grandfather's supervision, and that the grandfather was in charge of the premises. It further emphasized that it was a question for the jury under these circumstances as to whether the grandfather was a keeper of the dog. 

Indiana recognizes a limited duty on the part of landlords and land owners to protect third parties from dangerous dogs harbored by tenants. Morehead v. Deitrich (2010) No. 09A04-1003-CT-172. The landowner has to retain a significant degree of control over the premises, and has to know that the dog is vicious. In the Morehead case, the victim was a postal worker who was attacked by a pit bull. Prior to renting a single-family dwelling, the tenant who owned the pit bull informed the landowner that the tenant had a "large male pit bull dog." Days later, the parties entered into a one-year lease. It stated, "absolutely no pets are allowed unless authorized by the landlord." The landowner indeed made an exception for that dog. Thereafter the landlord visited the premises approximately every six weeks to collect rent and money for the gas bill. The dog behaved in a hostile manner at those times. Additionally, the tenant informed they landowner that the dog had been trained to dislike people who wore uniform, and "nonwhite people." A few months later, the pit bull escape the premises and attacked a postal carrier on the adjacent public sidewalk. She filed suit against the land owner. Summary judgment was granted in favor of the land owner, and the postal carrier appealed. The court affirmed the judgment and said there is a two prong test for landlord liability: the first prong of that test is whether the landlord retains some control over the premises where the dog is kept, and the second is whether the landlord had knowledge, at the time of the injury caused by a dog, of the dog's vicious propensity. Although the postal carrier was entitled to go to the jury on the second issue (i.e., knowledge of viciousness), the court said there was no evidence to support the view that the landlord had sufficient control to hold him liable. The lease provision was not sufficient evidence of control over the premises. 

The other issue which naturally arises after a dog bites a person is whether the dog can be ordered put down or confined differently in the future. This is always a matter of specific law as opposed to common sense. One must look in the laws of the city, county and state -- all three, not just one of them. The reason is that all three might have provisions that define "dangerous dog" or "vicious dog," and all three might contain the remedies for a dog fitting the definition. Furthermore, is is common for animal control officials to apply the laws that produce the result that they themselves want, when the laws provide different remedies. For example, if an official is of the "no kill" mindset, meaning that he or she never wants a dog put down under practically any circumstances, the law relied upon will be the one that does not give authority for euthanasia, even if other applicable laws do provide that authority. Therefore one must be diligent about researching this yourself.

Here is an example of the differences and interactions among city, county and state laws. For an accident that happened in Bloomington, the following laws can be applied:

  • The county laws of Monroe. See the definitions of "potentially dangerous" and "vicious dog" in section 440-1. Note that both of these definitions rely upon the state code. See also the definitions of "public nuisance" and "restraint." After reading these definitions, see section 440-6, which is the procedure involving a vicious dog.
  • The city laws of Bloomington. note particularly how these city laws contain different definitions of "potentially dangerous" and "vicious animal" (see section 7.01.010 Definition of terms.)

To have a dog confined or put down in Bloomington, one must first determine whether the city or county law "fits" the case, then extract the requirements of the applicable law, assemble the evidence in proper legal form, and then present it to the animal control department (either the prosecuting officer or at the "dog court" hearing).



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