Dog Bite Liability

Most dog owners are responsible and take every precaution to train their dog to properly interact with humans and other dogs. The reality is, no matter how well-trained, any dog can bite or attack under certain circumstances.

If you own a dog, it is important to know and understand the laws and statutes regarding dog bites and owner liability.

A small percentage of states (15) do not have state-specific dog bite statutes, instead they follow an old British common law called the ‘one bite rule’. This law shields pet owners or keepers/harborers from liability, civil law and criminal law until the owner has a certain degree of knowledge that his dog is dangerous or vicious. The exception would be if liability could be proven on other grounds. Once the owner has knowledge that his dog has the propensity to bite and it does bite someone, then he can be subject to criminal fines, animal control laws, and civil liability and punitive damages.

The majority of states, Missouri and Illinois included, have stricter state statues that either eliminate or heavily modify the ‘one bite rule’.   In these states, dog owners (and sometimes harborers/keepers) are liable for nearly all dog bites, regardless of the viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of the viciousness, as long as the victim didn’t trespass or provoke the dog. Similarly, the owner can face fines and penalties under criminal laws; and the dog can face penalties under animal control laws.

Regardless of whether a state follows the ‘one bite rule’ or not, in almost all cases an owner can be held liable for a bite resulting from negligence, such as negligent handling or confinement, violation of a leash law, or other animal control law.

In most cases, exceptions to liability occur if:

  • The victim was a trespasser
  • The victim was a veterinarian or canine professional who was treating the dog at the time of the incident
  • The victim was committing a felony or other crime against the owner of the dog
  • The victim provoked the dog by physically abusing it
  • The victim assumed the risk (i.e., explicitly or implicitly consented) to being bitten
  • The dog was assisting the police or the military at the time of the incident

Each state dog bite statute is worded differently and must be interrupted by state and municipal courts. This further muddies the waters, as some states have restrictions on who can be held liable (owner, harborer/keeper or both), have limits on coverage for dog bite injuries vs. non-bite injuries, have limits on a victim’s medical bills or may provide additional compensation if the dog previously bit someone.

If you own a dog that bit someone or if you or a loved one has been injured by a dog bite, your best course of action is to consult a local attorney well-versed in the dog bite statutes for your state.

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