Dog Bite Defenses


[Content Updated Feb 7, 2021] – Most PI lawyers and cops assume private dog owners are 100% at fault for dog attacks. Mostly, this is due to a misunderstanding of California’s legal term: “strict liability.”

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What strict liability in dog bite law means is that:

  • Few defenses apply.
  • Strict liability doesn’t mean owners or controllers of assaulting dogs get off fault free every time.

In other states and countries, attack victims must prove the dog was a known danger.

  • Most of these other places have a one-bite rule.

In other words, your dog must have past bitten someone before evidence exists about your dog’s public danger before strict liability under negligence law attaches. But even the one-bite rule states won’t allow dog owners to escape 100%, especially when intentional acts remain at issue.

For example:

  • When an owner unjustifiably sicks his dog on a victim or uses his dog to rape a victim, liability attaches. The same theory would go for shooting a person with a gun with no justification.

So first, people need to know that animal attacks are not always the fault of the owner. Because of this, people need to recognize when defenses do and when they don’t.

When Are Pet Owners Responsible for their Pets?

Dog Attack at Dog Beach-Goldenwest Street HB

The bottom line is that you are almost always responsible for the acts of your pets. In particular, dog owners should be aware of their dog bites a person; they can face civil suits. The news media often run stories about bite victims. These stories relate to injuries suffered, the dog’s impounding, and the consequences the owner faces.

Dog owners facing possible civil suits should consider consulting an experienced dog bite lawyer. The attorney specializing in dog bite injuries can specify the applicable law and how this could affect them.


 What Are Some Possible Dog Owner Defenses?

The responsibility for the dog’s actions won’t always be with the dog’s owner, even after the dog bites someone. For example, there are some instances when the dog bite occurs with justifiable cause. But as discussed, every state has its specific dog bite laws.

Exceptions to Dog Bite Strict Liability:

  • The Victim was aware of the risk or was careless: What if the victim knew the dog might bite and chose to ignore the risk or accepted the risk? Believe it or not, the owner might not be at fault. Again, this will depend on state laws. What if the owner has a “beware of dog” signs posted or makes sure the person was aware of the danger? Again, the owner may escape fault. One instance could be a professional boarding or grooming business. In that case, those companies may assume the risk of assault by an animal under their care. After all, the dogs are spooked and away from their element. So that could be taken as a part of the job. They may not be able to sue.
  • Provoking a dog: Provoking a dog, whether intentional or unintentional, mean the dog will lash out defensively. So, in this case, the dog owner may not be at fault. Imagine if the dog was being teased, tormented, or hit by the victim that suffered the dog bite. In some cases, the dog bites a victim that unintentionally provoked the dog, such as invading its space, food, or even stepping on dog paws. Even then, the dog owner may not retain fault. But this remains a wobbler. In other words, it could go either way. But the dog felt may have felt it was in danger. So there is the inquiry for a judge and jury.
  • Trespassing: When a person suffers a dog bite while trespassing or in the act of illegal activity, the dog owner may not be legally at fault. So this remains a gray area in some respects. Juries have had no sympathy for the person trespassing to commit a burglary and suffered a dog bite attack. But when the person was a child or adult entering the property with no harm intended, it may have a different outcome.

How Can Dog Owners Avoid a Civil Suit?

The dog owner can take action to protect themselves and their dog from legal actions. So this requires being vigilant in preventing the dog from biting any person. While in some instances it remains avoidable, some precautions exist for the dog owner to take. These stay especially true if the dog may bite.

Using a muzzle in some instances can be intelligent. But many more methods exist to avoid suits.

Methods to Help Avoid Dog Bite Lawsuits:

  • Use Warning Signs. Dogs are protective of their territory naturally. So by putting up warning signs or “beware of dog” signs, it warns people before entering your property, they could be at risk. In any event, this can protect the dog owner legally. Most people will not enter a property with a warning sign placing them in danger of a dog attack.
  • Gate Locks. Locking the gate shows an effort to keep people out of danger. In other words, the dog owner is protecting people from possibly getting a bit. A stranger on the secured property is likely trespassing. In other words, they are on the premises without the permission of the owner.
  • Do not let aggressive dogs near children and strangers. An owner who knows the dog may bite or attack should take the dog to a place of hiding. At a minimum, secure or contain the dog. Also, do so in a way that keeps the dog from a stranger or child. Again, this can mean putting the dog in another room or a kennel. That way, the child or adult remains unmolested while present on the property.

Stay Out of Bad Situations?

You heard, right. Dog owners do not want to be in a situation where their pet has unjustifiably bitten another person who meant no harm. Due to negligent dog owners in the past and present, the responsible dog owner will need to prove their dog had a legitimate cause to bite.

So this is where being proactive is the best form of defense. So post signs, lock the gate, or put the dog out of range when they feel threatened. Also, this can potentially help protect the owner and the dog from a future possible civil lawsuit and dog impounding.

We just reviewed a few exceptions and defenses to dog bite strict liability. To learn more, reach out to Michael Ehline at Ehline Law Firm (213) 596-9642.

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