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Animal Bites Law

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What is the One Bite Rule for Dog Attacks?

More than 4 million dog bites occur in the U.S. each year, and about 900,000 of those become infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2016, 41 dog attacks were fatal, and 22 of those deaths were attributed to pit bulls.

The job of the courts is to hold owners accountable for the behavior of their pets and to identify vicious animals in their community. When you or a family member have been attacked by a dog, you may have the right to seek compensation for damages that can range from reimbursement of medical expenses to punitive damages for wrongful death, depending on the extent of the injuries and the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Pit bulls top the list of what courts consider dangerous breeds. That list also includes chow chows, Doberman Pinschers, and Rottweilers, a breed that comes in second for the number of reported incidents overall. Several state and local jurisdictions have tried to enact breed-specific legislation to cover dogs with pit bull-like characteristics that include exaggerated or locking jaws, heavy neck and shoulder muscles, and large body mass. Such laws have been struck down in most states, although some allow counties and municipalities to enact breed-specific bans. The states that still allow bans on 'vicious' dogs are:

  • Arkansas
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Ohio
  • Maryland
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

In those jurisdictions, owners of pit bulls and dogs with similar characteristics must register their dogs, keep the dogs muzzled and leashed in public places, and obtain liability insurance among other requirements. Despite the reputation of some dog breeds for viciousness, other factors come into play when a dog attacks that determine the extent of liability of dog owners.

Determining Liability after a Dog Bite

Whenever an injury or death occurs, the question of responsibility comes in. Liability laws are determined at the state level, with each state having a different standard under which owners can be held liable. New York and California are states with two of the strictest laws covering animal attacks. Liability laws fall under common law, and they're divided into two categories: strict liability and the 'one bite' rule.

Strict Liability in a Dog Bite Case

This designation occurs when a wild animal or a domestic animal with a known history of viciousness attacks. Under strict liability, a pet owner is automatically responsible for the injury, whether or not they could have prevented the incident. In general, the only two standards necessary in court are:

1. Was the injured person legally permitted to be in the area where the attack occurred?

2. Did the person attacked provoke the animal in some way? This standard does not apply if the injured person was under the age of four.

There are currently 31 states with strict liability laws, including California, Illinois, and Michigan. Some of these are applicable to any domestic animal, and some are specific to dogs. Five states require the plaintiff to prove owner negligence or prior knowledge of a propensity for viciousness on the part of the owner, such as prior incidents of an attack or a dog that has been trained to attack. Those states are:

  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • North Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee

The One Bite Rule

Sixteen states have what's known as the 'one bite' rule, including Maryland, New York, and Virginia. This statute was the former common law that almost every state enacted until the incidents of animal attacks and popularity of certain breeds, like pit bulls and German shepherds, became widespread. Historically, under the one bite rule, a dog was allowed one free pass before the owner became liable. This has been altered a bit to fit modern society.

Under the new designation, it must be proven that the owner should have known that the dog might bite due to its temperament or recent circumstances (an animal that has recently been ill, injured, or given birth). In cases where liability is at issue, the courts will try to determine:

  1. Did the dog act in a way that would be considered dangerous to the general public?
  2. Are there previous incidents involving this dog?
  3. Did the owner have knowledge of the dog's nature beforehand?
  4. Was the dog's behavior the cause of the injury?

It should be noted that an owner will not usually be considered at fault if the attack was due to the dog protecting itself, its owner, or its pups from an attack or perceived danger. One example would be when a visitor to the property antagonizes or harms the dog and it bites in self-defense.

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