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Dog bite laws vary by state. Therefore, the state in which a dog attacks will determine what the rights of the victim are. In most instances, dog bite law follows a “strict liability” theory. Under these laws, the dog owner is responsible for any damage caused by an attack from their dog.

In most cases, when wild animals are kept as pets, an owner is liable for injuries caused by the animal. This is so even if the owner has no prior knowledge of the animal’s propensity to cause harm, and even if the owner exercises the utmost care in preventing harm. In essence, strict liability is imposed on owners of wild animals. Owners of domestic animals may also be held liable for harm caused by their pet but usually only if the owner knows or has reason to know that the animal has dangerous propensities.

The owners of creatures which, as a species, are harmless and domesticated, and are kept for convenience or use, such as dogs are not liable for injuries willfully committed by them unless he is proved to have had notice of the inclination of the particular animals complained of to commit such injuries. As with wild animals, this liability also attaches regardless of the amount of care exercised by the owner. However, unlike with wild animals, when the owner of a dog has knowledge of its dangerous propensities.

In certain instances, a lawsuit can succeed against a dog owner even if the owner had no actual knowledge of the animal’s dangerous propensities. Such knowledge might be implied.Nonetheless, when an owner does not know of his animal’s dangerous propensities, the rule is generally that the owner is bound to know the natural tendencies of the particular class of animals to which the dog belongs. If the propensities of the class to which the dog belongs are the kind which one might reasonably expect would cause injury, then the owner must use reasonable care to prevent injuries from occurring.

Where there is no evidence of an owner’s actual knowledge that his or her dog has dangerous propensities, the owner may nonetheless be held liable provided there is evidence that the particular breed to which the dog belongs has dangerous propensities. And this is so even where the owner’s dog has never before attacked or bitten anyone.

For example, the ferocious nature of a bulldog is sufficient to provide the owner with implied notice of the dog’s dangerous propensities. In essence, a jury can infer that the owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous or vicious propensities only where evidence shows that the particular breed to which the owner’s dog belongs is known to exhibit such tendencies.

The common law presumes that all dogs, regardless of breed or size, are harmless. That presumption can be overcome by evidence of a known vicious or dangerous propensity of the particular dog. The owner or keeper of a dog who knows of any vicious propensity is required to use reasonable care in those circumstances to prevent the animal from causing injury.

Furthermore, the owner of a dog is expected to use reasonable care to prevent injury that might result from the natural propensities of dogs. Thus, whether the owner or keeper of the animal is aware of any vicious propensity, the legal description of the duty owed is the same: that of reasonable care under the circumstances.

Thus, depending on the facts of a particular case and the laws of a particular state, a dog’s unprovoked biting may or may not be evidence of the dog’s vicious tendencies. For example, although technically a “biting,” a playful nibble on the hand is one thing, while a “teeth- baring” clamp on the arm is quite another.

Check your state statutes or with a lawyer in locality for more specific information.


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