Who is Liable for a Dog Bite?

Dog attacks with bite injuries are terrifying and traumatic for any victim to experience, yet they happen every day in the United States, including in New Jersey. More than 800,000 Americans undergo medical treatment for dog bites each year and many thousands more experience bite injuries that go unreported. Children and the elderly are the most common victims of dog attacks, but people of any age can experience serious injuries from a dog bite.

When a dog causes serious injuries, the consequences to the victim’s life can quickly escalate, with physical and emotional consequences along with economic hardship related to lost work days and mounting medical expenses. These consequences are known as the victim’s “damages” in a dog bite claim. Fortunately, dog bite victims have legal recourse so they don’t have to suffer undue financial burdens after a serious dog bite. Instead, they can recover their losses through a successful claim for damages with the help of a Cherry Hill dog bite injury lawyer. But who is liable for damages from a dog attack?

Who is Liable for a Dog Bite?

One-Bite Rule vs. Strict Liability for Dog Bites

Most states fall into one of two categories for dog bite liability, either strict liability or “one-bite” rule states. States like New Jersey place pet owners under strict liability for their pet’s actions. This leaves the dog owner liable for a bite victim’s damages regardless of the dog’s history. Even if a dog has never bitten or acted aggressively before, the owner is liable for the damages the first time a dog bites anyone who is legally on the owner’s property or if their dog bites someone in a public space. 

Other states, like Texas, have a one-bite rule that protects pet owners from liability the first time a dog bites under the premise that a dog’s owner couldn’t know that the dog is aggressive until after the first bite or first instance of aggressive behavior. In either case, proving owner negligence in a dog bite claim isn’t usually necessary. Pet owners are either under strict liability, or they are liable for damages the second time a dog bites.

In cases of a dog attack with no bites—such as an injury when a dog knocks over a person but doesn’t bite them, the victim would have to file a claim against the owner based on negligent behavior such as failure to restrain a large dog.

What Is the Dog-Bite Injury Scale?

Medical providers classify dog bites on a scale according to the severity of the injury. This scale is important in determining the amount of compensation that should be awarded in a dog bite injury claim based on the expenses associated with each level of injury. The dog-bite injury scale is as follows:

  • Level-one injuries are bruises and abrasions from a dog’s bite that didn’t break the surface of the skin—often a warning bite
  • Level-two injuries are those that don’t puncture the skin but might cause redness, scrapes, and bleeding
  • Level-three injuries occur when the dog’s teeth puncture the skin at a depth of about half the length of the dog’s tooth in one or more tooth marks from a single bite
  • Level-four injuries occur when a dog’s teeth puncture the skin in one or more places at a depth of more than half of a dog’s tooth length
  • Level-five bites occur when a dog bites a victim multiple times with at least two bites at level-four depth with or without tearing, bruising, and bone fractures
  • Level-six bites occur when a victim’s wounds are fatal and/or the attack involves the loss of digits or limbs. In some level-six bites, the dog consumes flesh

Regardless of the level of the dog’s bites after an attack, if the attack results in injuries requiring medical care and time away from work, the dog’s owner is liable for damages in strict liability states or states with a one-bite rule if the dog has a history of at least one previous bite or incident of aggression.

What Damages are Available for Compensation in a Dog Bite Liability Claim?

When a dog bites a person and causes injuries, the damages to the victim are physical, emotional, and financial. After a dog bite, the dog’s owner is liable for compensation for any of the following damages:

  • Property damage to the victim’s belongings
  • Medical expenses
  • Future medical expenses for further bite-related medical care such as for infections, reconstructive surgery, and rehabilitation
  • Diminished earning capacity due to disability caused by bite injuries
  • Pain and suffering
  • Emotional trauma/PTSD
  • Disfigurement 
  • Loss of enjoyment of life
  • Traumatic limb loss
  • Wrongful death

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), dog bites cause an average of 43 deaths per year.  When a dog causes a fatality, the owner is liable for wrongful death damages paid to close family members. Wrongful death compensation includes compensation for lost income for the remainder of the working years the deceased person had remaining, as well as compensation for funeral expenses.

What if the Dog Bite Occurs on the Owner’s Property?

In strict liability states like New Jersey, the dog’s owner is liable for damages even if their dog bites a person on their own property unless the person is illegally trespassing or in the process of committing a crime when the dog bite occurs. People who are not considered trespassers include the following:

  • Anyone invited to the property by the owner either directly or by implication
  • Anyone on the property in their duty by government office such as postal workers and census takers
  • Delivery personnel
  • Children

Children are never considered trespassers on private property because property owners and dog owners should reasonably presume that children may enter their property at any time and have a duty to take reasonable measures to prevent injury, including by restraining their dogs.

In many cases, visitors approaching the area at the front of a house, using a front walkway, or approaching the front door of a home are not considered trespassers. This part of the property is known as the home’s “curtilage.” Legally, homeowners and renters must have a reasonable expectation that people will approach their front door and thus have a duty to prevent their dogs from harming them.