Pennsylvania imposes strict liability for all damages where the injuries are severe or the dog previously engaged in dangerous behavior. The state also imposes strict liability for medical bills even without bad behavior on the part of the dog or its owner. In other cases, victims can recover full compensation if the dog owner was negligent or violated an animal control law.
- The Dangerous Dog Law
- The Miller and Hake cases
- Landlord liability
- Further reading
- Litigation forms and other materials for attorneys
- If your case involves injury to a dog, see When a Dog Is Injured or Killed
Pennsylvania dog bite law creates categories of victims and treats them differently. The source of the state's dog bite law is the common law, the "Dog Law," and the principal cases interpreting it, Miller v. Hurst, 302 Pa. Super. 235, 448 A.2d 614 (1982), and Commonwealth v. Hake, 738 A.2nd 46 (Pa Commw. Ct. 1999).
The Dog Law is the Act of December 7, 1982, P.L. 784, as amended, 3 P.S. § 459-101 through § 459-1205. The group of statutes at 3 P.S. § 459-501-A through § 459-507-A, collectively, is commonly known as the Dangerous Dog Statute.
The common law cause of action for scienter permits a victim to recover full compensation if the dog previously bit another person without justification or indicated a tendency to do so. For more information about the scienter cause of action, see Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA. The scienter cause of action is the corollary of the "one-bite" rule. See The One-Bite Rule for additional information.
If the dog has never bitten before, this state's dog bite law offers two different remedies that depend upon the degree of injury. Injuries are classified as either severe or non-severe. A "severe injury" is "any physical injury that results in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations requiring multiple sutures or cosmetic surgery." (The Dog Law, sec. 102.)
The severely injured victim can make a Dog Law claim against the dog owner for medical expenses and all other losses and legal damages. The victim must prove that the dog inflicted severe injury on him without provocation. It does not matter whether the dog previously bit a person prior to biting this victim. The basis of this claim was set forth in the Miller and Hake decisions, discussed below.
The non-severely injured victim can make a Dog Law claim against the dog owner, but the remedy is limited to only the medical expenses. (Sec. 502, subdivision (b) of the Dangerous Dog Statute: "Any cost to the victim for medical treatment resulting from an attacking or biting dog must be paid fully by the owner of such dog.") The victim only has to prove that the defendant was the owner of the dog.
Severely injured and non-severely injured victims can base claims for full compensation upon the doctrines of negligence and negligence per se. For more information about these causes of action, see Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA.
There is not automatic or strict liability under the doctrine of negligence per se. Where a dog broke free of its chain, leading to a dog fight in which the victim attempted to rescue her dog but got bitten in the process, it was held that the victim had to prove that the dog owners failed to use due care in chaining the dog, and that the violation of the Dog Law was the cause of the injury. Villaume v. Kaufman, 550 A.2d 793, 379 Pa. Super 561 (1988).
Defense attorneys attempt to minimize the significance of the Dog Law and the Miller and Hake decisions. See for example Carol Anne Murphy, Defending the Dog Bite Case in Pennsylvania. It is undisputed, however, that the Dog Law states that a propensity to attack human beings without provocation may be proven by a single incident (Hake, below) and that the single incident of an attack on a human does not have to produce a severe injury to trigger liability. See Commonwealth v. Austin, 2004 WL 7846284 at 2 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004); Commonwealth v. Baldwin, ____ Pa. Cmwlth. ____, 767 A.2d 644 (2001).
Section 459-305. CONFINEMENT OF DOGS
It shall be unlawful for the owner or keeper of any dog to fail to keep at all times such dog either:
(1) confined within the premises of the owner;
(2) firmly secured by means of a collar and chain or other devise so that it cannot stray beyond the premises on which it is secured; or,
(3) under the reasonable control of some person, or when engaged in lawful hunting, exhibition or field training.
Section 502-A. REGISTRATION
(a) SUMMARY OFFENSE OF HARBORING A DANGEROUS DOG - Any person who has been attacked by one or more dogs, or anyone on behalf of such person, a person whose domestic animal has been killed or injured without provocation, the State dog warden or the local police officer may file a complaint before a district justice, charging the owner or keeper of such a dog with harboring a dangerous dog. The owner or keeper of a dog shall be guilty of the summary offense of harboring a dangerous dog if the district justice finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the following elements of the offense have been proven:
(1) The dog has done one or more of the following:
(i) Inflicted severe injury on a human being without provocation on public or private property.
(ii) Killed or inflicted severe injury on a domestic animal without provocation while off the owner's property.
(iii) Attacked a human being without provocation.
(iv) Been used in the commission of a crime.
(2) The dog has either or both of the following:
(i) A history of attacking human beings and/or domestic animals without provocation.
(ii) A propensity to attack human beings and/or domestic animals without provocation. A propensity to attack may be proven by a single incident of the conduct described in paragraphs (1)(i), (ii), (iii) or (iv).
(3) The defendant is the owner or keeper of the dog.
(a.1) EFFECT OF CONVICTION - A finding by a district justice that a person is guilty, under subsection (a), of harboring a dangerous dog shall constitute a determination that the dog is a dangerous dog for purposes of this act.
(c) ATTACKS CAUSING SEVERE INJURY OR DEATH - The owner of any dog that, through the intentional, reckless or negligent conduct the dog's owner, aggressively attacks and causes severe injury or death of any human shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree. In addition, the dog shall be immediately confiscated by a State dog warden or a police officer, placed in quarantine for the proper length of time and thereafter humanely killed in a expeditious manner, with costs of quarantine and destruction to be borne by the dog's owner.
Miller v. Hurst, 302 Pa. Super. 235, 448 A.2d 614 (1982) was a negligence per se case, meaning a case based upon the violation of an animal control law. In Miller, a dog injured the victim while the dog was running loose. The court adopted the statutory requirements of section 459-305 of the Dog Law, above, as the standard to be applied in determining whether a dog owner has exercised due care in the supervision of his dog. The court held that an unexcused violation of the Dog Law is negligence per se. To this extent, Miller abrogated the common law "one free bite" rule, under which an animal was required to be restrained only after its behavior evidenced viciousness.
Miller did not, however, completely abolish the "one free bite" rule. A footnote in the court's decision asserted that a dog owner may always show that the dog escaped despite the exercise of due care, and that in such cases negligence would not be found. The footnote explicitly rejected imposing absolute liability upon the dog owner in every case.
Following the Miller decision, revisions to the Dog Law were enacted. Additional criminal penalties were imposed if the injury to the victim was severe.
In Commonwealth v. Hake 738 A.2nd 46 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1999) it was held that a single incident of infliction of severe injury imposes criminal liability under the above statute, therefore eliminating the "one free bite" interpretation under the prior version of the Dangerous Dog Statute. The Court stated:
"The 1996 amendments to the Statute no longer require that the dog be found specifically 'dangerous.' After the amendments, the Statute imposes liability where any of the following situations arise:
a dog, while on public or private property, inflicts severe injury on a human being without provocation; or
attacks a human being without provocation and where the dog has either (or both) a history of attacking human beings or animals without provocation or a propensity to attack human beings and/or domestic animals without provocation.
Most importantly, the 1996 amendments specifically provide that the propensity to attack may be proven by a single incident of the infliction of severe injury or attack on a human being, clearly permitting a finding of a 'propensity' to attack human beings by virtue of the attack in question, even if it is only the first attack.
Without permitting a strict liability interpretation of this statute, the difficulty of establishing culpability for injuries would surely frustrate the purpose of the Statute.
The 1996 amendments effectively removed the previous 'one free bite' interpretation and the Statute now permits liability for the dog's first bite."
The federal court in Gallick v. Barto, 828 F. Supp. 1168, 1174-1175 (M.D. Pa. 1993), quoting Palermo v. Nails, 334 Pa. Super. 544, 547-548, 483 A.2d 871, 873 (1984), and applying Pennsylvania law, held that "‘a landlord . . . may be held liable for injuries by animals owned and maintained by his tenant when the landlord has knowledge of the presence of the dangerous animal and where he has the right to control or remove the animal by retaking possession of the premises.'"
The Pennsylvania Code contains the regulations pertaining to dogs. The Dangerous Dog Law at 3 P.S. § 459-502-A is not a penal statute under the Crimes Code (Title 18), but is a regulatory statute, administered and enforced by the Department of Agriculture (Title 7, Chapter 27 of the Pa. Code). See Commonwealth v. Hake 738 A.2nd 46 at footnote 3.
The Pennsylvania rules pertaining to the settlement of claims by minors: Rule 2039 (settlement of claim involving a minor), Rule 5101 (minor's settlement less than $25,000 can be received by minor or his parents but must be invested pursuant to the court's direction), Rule 5112 (if settlement exceeds $25,000, parents cannot act as guardians unless they are co-guardians with a fiduciary), Rule 5121 (guardian is required to post a bond), Rule 5145 (guardian is required to obey the prudent investor rule provided by Ch. 72).