A dog bite victim in Rhode Island can recover compensation under a special statute and the doctrines of negligence, negligence per se, scienter, and intentional tort. The dog bite statute has two unusual features: it applies only to accidents outside the owner's enclosed area for the dog, and it doubles the victim's compensation if the dog previously injured someone.

Overview

When a person is bitten by a dog, the dog bite statute of Rhode Island provides for strict liability unless the dog was within its owner's enclosed area. It also mandates that, if attacked by a dog that previously engaged in conduct bringing the dog within the state's dog bite law, the victim is entitled to double damages.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court summarized the state's dog bite statute in just 10 words: "strict liability attaches for any injury occurring outside the dog's enclosure." Johnston v. Poulin, 844 A.2d 707 (Rhode Is. Sup. Ct., 2004). On the other hand, "If injuries are suffered within an owner's enclosed area, the strict-liability statute does not apply, but rather the common law continues to apply and dictates that the plaintiff first must prove that the defendant knew about the dog's vicious propensities, a … requirement commonly known as the ‘one-bite rule.'" DuBois v. Quilitzsch, ___ A.2d ___ (Rhode Isl. Sup. Ct., 2011).

Here is the text of the statute:

§ 4-13-16  Action for damages to animals – Double damages on second recovery – Destruction of offending dog. – If any dog kills, wounds, worries, or assists in killing, wounding or worrying, any sheep, lamb, cattle, horse, hog, swine, fowl, or other domestic animal belonging to or in the possession of any person, or assaults, bites, or otherwise injures any person while traveling the highway or out of the enclosure of the owner or keeper of that dog, the owner or keeper of the dog shall be liable to the person aggrieved, for all damage sustained, to be recovered in a civil action, with costs of suit. If afterwards any such damage is done by that dog, the owner or keeper of the dog shall pay to the party aggrieved double the damage, to be recovered in the manner set forth and an order shall be made by the court before whom that second recovery is made, for killing the dog. The order shall be executed by the officer charged with the execution of the order, and it shall not be necessary, in order to sustain this action, to prove that the owner or keeper of the dog knew that the dog was accustomed to causing this damage. 

The strict liability of the dog-bite statute is predicated on the location of the dog at the time of injury. It has been established that "the clause 'while traveling on the highway or out of the enclosure of the owner or keeper of such dog' modifies the word 'person' and not the word 'dog.' " Wilbur v. Gross, 55 R.I. 473, 478, 182 A. 597, 599 (1936). "Therefore, the dog-bite statute imposes strict liability in any circumstance wherein the dog is outside of its owner's enclosure." Johnston v. Poulin, 844 A.2d 707 (Rhode Isl. Sup. Ct., 2004).

In DuBois v. Quilitzsch, cited above, the state's highest court held that a dog bite victim who cannot meet the requirements of the one bite rule is not entitled to use other legal grounds to impose liability on the dog owner, such as the law of premises liability. 

The dog bite law of this state has the following features:

  • It applies not only to owners but to anyone who is a "keeper" of the dog.
  • Any injury brings the incident within the coverage of the law, whether or not a bite.
  • The victim can be a human, a dog or other domestic animal, or a sheep, lamb, cattle, horse, hog, swine or fowl.
  • After the first bite, a dog owner or keeper is liable for double damages if and when the same dog attacks again.

When the statute does not apply, a dog owner, harborer or keeper still can be responsible for being negligent or breaking a law, such as a leash law, or for intentional conduct that causes the dog to bite. For details, see Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA.

 

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