Different Standard For Criminal v. Civil Liability in Dog Bite Cases

Employment / Personal Injury / Business

I grew up with dogs of all sizes.  My parents were veterinarians and I frequently worked at their small animal hospital in my teens.  The experience taught me than any dog may bite in certain situations, especially when frightened, and that some dogs, like some people, are just plain mean. 

In 1996, the Pennsylvania Legislature amended the Commonwealth’s “Dog Law” to make it easier for dog bite victims to hold a dog owner responsible for harboring a dangerous animal.  Under the amended law, a victim may file a complaint against the dog owner in the local district court.  If the victim can show the dog inflicted a severe injury or attacked without provocation, and the dog has a history of attacking or a propensity to attack without provocation, the owner may be convicted of harboring a dangerous animal.  Even the dog’s first bite can result in a conviction. (See Fido’s First Bite Isn’t Free, 3/26/10).  If the district justice finds the dog is dangerous, the owner is strictly liable for a violation of the Dog Law even if the owner had no prior knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities and kept the dog confined.  Among the consequences for a  conviction are having to register the dog as a dangerous animal, building a special kennel on the owner’s property for the dog, keeping the dog muzzled at all times while off the owner’s property, notification to the owner’s insurance company, and payment of  the victim’s medical expenses.  The criminal charge is a summary offense akin to disorderly conduct, but the cost of compliance with the special requirements for harboring a dangerous animal can run into the thousands of dollars. 

For the  dog bite victim, however, the medical expenses may be a small portion of his or her actual damages.  The attack may result in serious, painful injuries, surgical procedures, permanent scarring, and loss of time from work and other activities.  Compensation for these damages may be recovered only through a civil lawsuit where the victim bears a greater burden of proof than in the district court.  In order to recover for pain and suffering and economic loss other than medical expenses, the victim must prove that the dog’s owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensity and failed to exercise ordinary care to restrain or control the dog.

When a dog is running free off the owner’s premises and attacks the victim, liability is more easily established.  The Dog Law requires all dog owners to keep pets confined to their premises and on a leash while off the premises.  If the dog escapes and injures someone, the owner will generally be liable unless he shows the dog escaped despite his best efforts to control it.

Attacks that occur on the owner’s premises are more problematic.  Often, these attacks occur when friends or neighbors visit and enter the area where the dog is.  If the dog has not bitten anyone nor acted aggressively in the past, expect the owner’s insurance company to be reluctant to pay. 

 Responsible owners of dogs who have demonstrated aggressive tendencies can avoid liability and difficult decisions by doing the following:

  • Keep the dog in a secure outside kennel.  If it must be in the house, keep it confined to one room with closed doors or secure gates.
  • Warn friends and visitors, especially children, not to go near the dog. 
  • Post conspicuous “Beware of Dog” signs in front of your property and again on the room or kennel where the dog is kept.
  • Muzzle the dog when outside its kennel or enclosure, even if it is still on your property.  There are humane muzzles that can be purchased and using a muzzle is preferable to risking injury to humans or other animals.

 

If you are visiting someone who owns dogs, here are some things to keep in mind. 

  • Unless you know the dog well, stay away from it. 
  • Always let the dog know where you are.  Do not surprise it by approaching it suddenly or from behind.
  • Let sleeping dogs lie.
  • Let eating dogs eat.
  • Never leave children unattended with dogs at any time.

 

Avoiding a confrontation with a dog in the first place will avoid injury, possible serious consequences for the dog, and a confrontation with the owner in court.

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