Dog Bites: When is the Owner Liable?

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Dog bites! Yikes!

Anyone who knows us knows that Felton Banks is an animal-friendly place. It isn’t uncommon to walk into the office and be greeted by one of our furry paralegals. It isn’t lost on us, however, that animals can be unpredictable and even dangerous under the wrong set of circumstances. With dogs in particular, attacks can be very unpleasant and very dangerous; in extreme cases, they can even be life-threatening.

But it may surprise you to know that dog owners are not automatically liable for injuries caused when their dogs attack people. In fact, it’s often difficult to prove liability on the part of the owner. If you’ve been hurt by a dog attack, it’s going to be crucial that you waste no time in conducting your own investigation to determine whether or not you can recover. At the very least, you can make sure that the owner is definitely held liable if the dog attacks anyone else.

So without further ado, here are the various ways that you, as a dog bite victim, can set out to prove liability against the owner of the offending animal.

Option #1: The Tried-and-True Statutory Method

You may have heard of North Carolina’s “One-Bite Rule,” which essentially states that a dog gets one “free bite” before its owner is put on notice of the dog’s vicious propensities. If the dog then bites someone a second time, the owner is then held liable for any damages caused by the attack. The “One-Bite Rule” is used to some degree in nearly every state, and here in North Carolina it’s memorialized at N.C.G.S. § 67-4.4. This statute dictates that the owner of a dangerous dog is strictly liable for “any injuries or property damage the dog inflicts upon a person, his property, or another animal.” Strict liability means that neither the circumstances nor the offender’s mindset or intent matter; if the dog is dangerous, and if it causes damages, then the owner is liable. Period.

So what constitutes a dangerous dog? Well, N.C.G.S. § 67-4.1 tells us there are three ways to determine that a dog is “dangerous” for purposes of the One-Bite Rule. If the dog (i) has killed or inflicted severe injury on a person (meaning broken bones or “disfiguring lacerations”, or which required cosmetic surgery or hospitalization), (ii) has been designated as a “potentially dangerous dog” by the appropriate animal control entity, or (iii) is trained, owned, or kept for the primary purposes of dog fighting, then it’s a “dangerous dog” and the One-Bite Rule applies.

As you may notice, there’s room for some weirdness in this statute. First of all, what constitutes a “disfiguring laceration?” Does that mean scarring? Does it mean stitches? Does it mean merely breaking the skin? Unfortunately, we really don’t know! There’s precious little judicial guidance, in North Carolina at least.

Secondly, what does “potentially dangerous dog” mean? We have a little more guidance on that one. Under § 67-4.1(a)(2), a potentially dangerous dog is one that the person or Board designated by the appropriate entity determines to have (i) killed or inflicted serious injury on a person as defined above, (ii) killed or inflicted severe injury upon a domestic animal when not on the owner’s real property, or (iii) “approached a person when not on the owner’s property in a vicious or terrorizing manner in an apparent attitude of attack.” So what in the world does that mean? What constitutes a “vicious or terrorizing manner,” and what constitutes an “apparent attitude of attack?” It seems to me at least that this verbiage relies maybe-a-little-too-heavily on the victim’s subjective emotional response to the dog’s behavior. If we’re talking about someone who has an intrinsic fear of dogs, then even an innocuous bark could ostensibly be interpreted as “vicious,” “terrorizing,” or even as an “apparent attitude of attack.”

In any case, the gist is that if your dog has given you a reason to believe (or even suspect) that it’s dangerous, by doing any of the things enumerated by the statute, then you’re on notice. Once you’re on notice, you’re then liable for any civil damages yielded by future attacks.

If this all sounds kind of familiar, that’s because it should! The One-Bite Rule sounds in basic negligence theory, which you’ll recall requires a duty and a breach of that duty. The idea is that the dog owner’s duty to protect potential victims of his dog attaches once that owner becomes aware of the danger presented by said dog. Once that duty is established, the owner then commits a breach of his duty by failing to take reasonable measures to protect potential victims. Duty plus breach equals negligence, which then becomes actionable when damages foreseeably result from said negligence.

Now, are there exceptions to the One-Bite Rule? Are there hypothetical extenuating circumstances that would establish liability by putting a dog owner on notice of potential danger even outside of what’s prescribed by the statute? Sure. We could chinwag about that one all day. But in the vast majority of cases, the One-Bite Rule is what we’re going to use to get to liability.

Option #2: Miscellaneous Strict Liability

You’ll recall that strict liability just means the owner is liable for damages caused by the dog, regardless of the circumstances and regardless of any excuses or mitigating factors that the owner can come up with. Outside of the scope of the One-Bite Rule, N.C.G.S. § 67-12 also attaches strict liability for dog owners who (i) allow a dog to run at large, (ii) where the dog is over six months old, (iii) at night, (iv) unaccompanied by the owner or by some member of the owner’s family, or some other person by the owner’s permission.

Oddly specific? Yes. Utilized often? Nope. Enough said? Sure.

Option #3: Negligence per se.

You’ll recall from prior articles that negligence per se simply means that a defendant’s negligence is established, not by proving the normal elements, but by virtue of the violation of some statutory law. In the context of motor vehicle accidents, that might mean that you’re per se negligent because you didn’t yield the right of way to an oncoming emergency vehicle. In the context of dog bites, negligence per se generally comes up when the owner is violating some local ordinance. The classic example is a leash law; you’re at the park, there’s a leash law in effect, your dog isn’t on a leash, it bites somebody, you’re liable. Shazam.

The main thing to take away here is that negligence per se can be a nice little end-run around the One-Bite Rule for a prospective plaintiff. That means you could be held liable even if you weren’t on notice of any danger from your pet. Want some good advice? Know the rules. Follow the rules.

Practical matters.

If you’re a dog owner, there are a couple things that you should take to heart after reading this. First and foremost, it’s extremely important that you properly and diligently train and socialize your furry friends. Where you’re legally responsible or not, you don’t want your pets to injure other people or other animals. Secondly, make sure your dog is sufficiently supervised and restrained. Remember that if your dog is off your property, it could easily trigger a strict liability scenario or behave in a manner sufficient to establish itself as a “potentially dangerous dog” within the statutory meaning.

If you’re the victim of a dog attack, the best thing you can do is to investigate thoroughly, as soon after the attack as possible. This could mean interviewing neighbors or other folks in the area to figure out whether the dog has attacked people before. It could include getting in touch with local animal control to determine whether there’s grounds upon which the dog could be considered potentially dangerous. A thorough investigation should also include looking at local animal ordinances to figure out whether negligence per se might apply.

If you’ve been attacked by a dog, or if your dog has attacked someone else, or if you just have questions or want to compare dog pictures, please give us a call. That’s what we’re here for!