Dog Bites and Animal Attacks
Dogs and other animals that are kept as pets or property can cause serious injuries and even lasting psychological trauma. Owners have a responsibility to protect others from the animals they choose to keep in their homes and businesses and can be held responsible if the animal causes an injury.
Animal bite laws and laws specifically regulating dogs vary by state, but generally the owners can be held responsible for injuries caused to another by their pets. However, other individuals and businesses, can be liable for an injury caused by animals in their custody, such as kennels, pounds, animal sitters, property owners that allowed the animal on their property, and landlords that are aware that their tenant is keeping a dangerous animal. Additionally, parents of minors that own an animal can be liable for their child’s pet’s actions.
Liability for Animal-Caused Injuries
Most states’ animal laws do not require that the animal’s owner acts negligently. They impose a strict liability standard, which means if someone’s pet bites another person and causes an injury, the owner is liable regardless of whether they took reasonable steps to prevent such an occurrence or whether the animal had a prior history of aggressiveness.
However, some states, including Pennsylvania, consider whether the injured party was partially responsible for the attack. For example, a person that provoked the animal or trespassed into an area where the animal was contained, may be found to be wholly or partially responsible for the attack.
Law enforcement is permitted to use dogs in the apprehension of criminal suspects and cannot be held liable for the injuries caused by police canines.
In addition to common laws, Pennsylvania has several statutes that specifically address dog ownership and create responsibilities for pet owners. Failure to adhere to those responsibilities can result in grievous injuries for which the injured party is entitled to compensation.
Compensation for Injuries
Under Pennsylvania law, the owner of a dog or animal that causes an injury must pay for all of the victim’s medical expenses related to the attack. The owner will not be held accountable for other costs, such as lost income or pain and suffering, unless they acted in a particularly negligent or reckless manner.
For example, if the victim can prove that the owner knew the animal had “unmistakably vicious tendencies” but failed to control it properly, the victim can sue the owner for negligence.
Previously, some courts, including those in Pennsylvania, ruled that a dog couldn’t be found to have vicious tendencies if it had only attacked a person a single time (sometimes called a “one bite rule”). That is no longer the case, however. A dog can be deemed to have vicious tendencies even if it has never previously attacked anyone.
Confinement of Dogs
In Pennsylvania, dog owners must maintain reasonable control over their pets at all times by:
- Confining the animal to their premises
- Restraining the animal with a collar, chain, or similar device when outside the premises
If either of those obligations are not met and the dog bites someone, the owner can be found to be negligent per se, which means they are automatically in breach of their duty of care.
There are elevated obligations for owners of dogs that have been classified as dangerous. A dog is considered “dangerous” if it has done one or more of the following:
- Inflicted severe injury (e.g. broken bones, disfiguring lacerations, injuries requiring extensive sutures or cosmetic surgery) on a person without provocation
- Inflicted severe injury to another animal without provocation while off the owner’s property
- Attacked a person without provocation
- Been used in the commission of a crime
A dog can also be labeled “dangerous” if it has shown a propensity for attacking people or animals without provocation.
Responsibilities for Owners of Dangerous Dogs
In addition to the regular duties of all pet owners, the owners of dangerous dogs must also:
- Register their animals as such and maintain liability insurance coverage of at least $50,000
- Post a clearly visible warning that a dangerous dog lives on their property — and the signage must include symbols that children would recognize
- Muzzle the animal whenever it is not confined on their property
In Pennsylvania, they must also notify the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, the State Dog Warden, and their local police for certain events related to the movements of dangerous dogs, such as if the dog is unconfined and on the loose, has attacked a person or another animal, or has died. If the animal has been sold or given away, they must also notify the authorities and include the name, address, and telephone number of the new owner.
Get Legal Guidance to Understand Your Local Pet Laws
In addition to common laws and the laws of Pennsylvania, many cities and smaller municipalities have their own specialized dog and animal control laws and regulations. There is also a statute of limitations for making claims. In Pennsylvania, the victim has two years from the date of the attack to file, and if the victim is a child, they have two years from their 18th birthday to file a dog bite lawsuit.
If you have been involved in an animal attack, seek medical attention and then take steps to protect your rights. Identify the dog and its owner and get contact information from any witnesses who may have observed the attack. Photograph any injuries you have sustained and file a dog bite report with your local animal control — and then contact an experienced legal professional who can help you understand your rights and obligations and get the compensation you deserve for your injuries.