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Dog bite liability is a legal assessment of who is responsible for damages associated with a dog bite. In most regions, dog owners are legally liable for injuries inflicted by their dogs. People charged with keeping environments safe, like business owners, daycare providers, and landlords, can also potentially be considered responsible for bites occurring on their premises. The determination of liability is important for suits where people are requesting compensation for dog bite injuries and deaths.
In some regions, dog bite liability law is based on the “first bite” premise. If a dog has no history of behaving aggressively and isn't known to have a propensity for violence and it bites someone, the owner is not necessarily liable, although future incidents will become a legal issue. Cases where dogs bite people who are threatening their owners, trespassing, or provoking the dog are generally given a pass, as the dog was clearly reacting instinctively. Veterinarians are also exempt from dog bite liability as it is assumed that the danger of dog bites is a known hazard of the profession, and vets are expected to exercise appropriate precautions to limit the risk of injuries, such as muzzling agitated dogs or using sedatives for potentially painful procedures.
Other regions have a strict liability law, where owners are considered responsible for any injuries incurred by their dogs at any time, history of aggressive behavior aside. The exceptions detailed above still apply in these cases, allowing people to defend themselves in dog bite liability cases where the dog was protecting the owner, reacting to a threat, or expressing discontent with a veterinary procedure.
Negligence can also play a role. People are expected to keep dogs under control and to comply with regulations like leash laws. If they fail to do so, allowing dogs to run loose, they can be held liable if the dogs injure someone. Negligence becomes especially important with dogs known to be violent or dangerous. If a dog needs to wear a muzzle or an owner routinely warns people about the risk of injury, the owner is expected to use due caution to reduce the risk of bites by controlling the dog.
Some insurance companies offer dog bite liability insurance, covering damages up to a certain amount. Insurance companies may not cover negligence, depending on the terms of the policy, but will provide support in court and pay damages in other situations. Such insurance is generally recommended for people with aggressive dogs and can be purchased as a rider on a property insurance policy for landlords who want to cover as many bases as possible.
There is another general exception to dog bite liability. If a trespasser wanders onto your property without permission and is bitten by your dog, then you will usually not be held liable for a bite.
There is an exception to that rule, however. Let's say you have a gas meter in your backyard and you keep a dog back there. If a meter reader enters your yard and gets bitten, you might be liable for the injury. Why? Because that person has the right to access that meter and you should have known that.
It's odd how things have changed, isn't it? There was a time when it was generally accepted that dogs just bit people from time to time. Now, people are held liable when that happens. Some say that's a bad thing, others say it's good. Regardless, it does represent a change and shows how laws evolve as societies mature.
Thanks to the proliferation of leash laws across the nation, dog bite liability cases typically boil down to two things. First, was the dog running loose? Second, was the dog running loose due to the negligence of the owner? If the answer to both of those questions is "yes" and a dog bites someone, then liability will typically be established.
The second question is important to address because there might be a scenario where an owner keeps his or her dog in a fenced in yard which the dog has never escaped. If the dog manages to find a way out of that fence (that does happen from time to time) or someone opens the fence without the owner's knowledge, then it's hard to claim the dog owner is negligent.
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