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Dog Bites – Who is Responsible?

It depends on the law in your state, or municipality and the facts of the case. In most states under the common law, dogs got “one free bite.” What this means is that a dog owner had no liability to a person that his dog injured if that was the first time the dog had displayed dangerous propensities (ie. bit somebody). After the first bite, the dog owner was required to take reasonable steps to ensure that his dog did not injure others, and the failure to take such steps could lead to the dog owner being held liable to persons bitten by his dog.

Dog bites result in literally thousands of injuries in the United States on a yearly basis; sometimes even including death and other catastrophic and permanent injuries, such as scarring. Accordingly, liability for these injuries can be significant. Fortunately, most homeowner policies cover injuries inflicted by the homeowner’s dog.

Over the years, many courts created liability for breeds of dogs that were determined to be “inherently vicious.” In these cases, a dog owner could be held liable for not taking reasonable steps to protect the public from his dog’s first bite – if the dog was of a breed considered to be inherently dangerous. Some breeds which may meet this criterion include Rottweiler’s, Pit bulls, Dobermans and the like.

In more recent years, many cities have enacted “leash laws.” Under these ordinances, all dogs “off the leash” are considered “inherently vicious” and thus if a person is attacked and injured by a dog running free in a leash law jurisdiction, even if the dog never has bitten anyone before and even if the dog is not an inherently vicious breed, the dog owner still may be liable.

Finally, many states have passed laws that hold a dog owner liable if the dog bites someone on the owner’s property (or chased from the owner’s property) if that person had a right to be on the owner’s property. For instance, a guest of the homeowner (or homeowner’s kids), a postal worker, a UPS or Fed Ex or any other delivery service, a meter reader etc. all would be protected by these types of laws.

Given the millions of dogs in the United States today, it is clear that numerous people in this country love their dogs, and that is fine. However, given the grievous injuries that these dogs can and do cause, it is only appropriate that liability has expanded so that dog owners have an extra incentive to meet their duty of taking reasonable precautions to protect members of the public from their pets.


  1. Gravatar for J.M

    While people do have to be responsible and they do have to be held accountable if their dog causes injury most dog bites are minor and fatalities are extremely rare.

  2. Gravatar for Danny Feldman

    I absolutely agree with your comment - most dog bite incidents, or other incidents caused by dogs, are relatively minor. That being said, some incidents are not - some incidents cause very serious injuries and unfortunately, in some very rare incidents, death. The fact is, whether or not a dog causes a minor injury or a serious one may depend on nothing more than dumb luck. Regardless of whether a dog causes a minor or a serious injury the bottom line remains the same - dog owners need to take reasonable steps to ensure their dogs don't cause any injuries and if those reasonable steps are not taken, then the dog owner needs to be held responsible.

    Please understand that I recognize that injuries may occur even if the dog owner has taken those reasonable steps to ensure that his dog doesn't cause injury. In those cases, of course, the dog owner should not be held legally liable.

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