One-Bite Rule Or Strict Liability: Understanding The Difference And Your Rights Under Law

2 March 2015
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There are over 4 million Americans bitten by dogs each year, and thousands of them require medical care. While dog owners aren't always responsible for dog-bites, there are many situations where they do bear legal liability for the actions of their dogs. Each state has made a determination regarding how they are going to address the issues concerning dog-bite liability, and each has adopted one of two positions: the One-Bite Rule or strict liability standards. If you have been bitten by a dog, then it is important to know if you are due compensation for your injury. Keep reading to better understand your legal rights under these two principles of the law:

The One-Bite Rule

Several states still operate under a common law principle known as the "One-Bite Rule", though it is slowly fading away as states adopt other paradigms. This principle provides dog owners with the benefit of the doubt concerning their pets, and it broadly permits each dog one "free" bite before the owner can be held liable. However, if an owner has reason to believe their dog is a danger to others, then the one-bite rule is waived, and the owner becomes liable. Based on prior court rulings, the following activities are considered indicative that an owner should know their dog is dangerous:

  • Prior history of biting - this is usually a clear-cut warning to owners, but there have been exceptions granted for "playful" biting by a puppy or other non-threatening nipping.
  • Growling, snapping or exhibiting other threatening behavior - if the behavior occurs in a public place, then dog owners should be on notice their pet is considered legally dangerous.
  • Trained to fight other dogs - some states and local ordinances define dog fight training to be a warning to owners, and some governing bodies have declared certain fighting breeds to be dangerous, even if they are not trained for that purpose.

The Strict Liability Principle

For the majority of states, dog-bite liability has been expressly codified into law. For these states, the strict liability principle governs the determination of responsibility and removes a lot of ambiguity that exists under One-Bite Rule. Strict liability simplifies matters by defining that any injury occurring due to a dog-bite is the responsibility of the owner of the animal. Under strict liability principles, dog owner awareness or lack of awareness about possible viciousness makes no difference from a legal standpoint; instead it is a clear-cut statement of fact that owners are liable.

Of course, there are always exceptions to most matters of the law, and the strict liability principle has a few of its own. Below are several possible reasons why a dog's owner may not be held responsible for a dog's actions under strict liability conditions:

  • Provocation by the injured - if a dog is attacked or harassed by another person, then dog owners are usually able to claim a defense that the animal was provoked into attacking. A disproportionate response by the dog, however, may not be acceptable in some situations.
  • Injured was not acting lawfully - similar to the provocation exception, if the person bitten by a dog was acting illegally, then the owner is relieved of responsibility. As an example, a burglar who is attacked by a dog inside its home will not be able to hold the owner liable for the injuries suffered.
  • Law covers only bites - in some locales, the strict liability principle may only cover dog-bites; other behaviors may not be included in the definition of strict liability. For example, if a dog runs into the street, a driver swerves to avoid hitting it, but subsequently crashes and is injured, strict-liability laws do not come into play for these states. However, it is likely that an injured person can still pursue redress through laws that cover general negligence.

In most cases involving a dog-bite, it is wise to consult with a qualified injury attorney like Arrington Schelin & Munsey PC before moving forward. Even if you think a lawsuit might be justified, only a lawyer with an in-depth understanding of legal liability can give you a full overview of your options.