You consider your pet to be a member of the family; he or she is an important part of your daily life, and you ensure care for your pet similar to that which a parent would ensure for a child: health care (visits to the veterinarian), food, shelter and exercise.
Yet if your beloved pet should run astray and injure an innocent third party, or cause damage to their property, you are responsible. So what are the liability implications for you, as the pet owner? Here are the five key things that you could be responsible for:
1. Civil Liability
Under the law, pets (including dogs) are considered personal property, which means that their owners could be liable for any harm that they may cause to another individual or their property. Civil liability can be attached to the adverse consequences of your pet’s actions (regardless of the type of animal) if you were negligent in controlling or restraining your pet.
The typical measure of damage in a pet damage / pet injury case is the quantifiable harm caused to the injured person or damaged property, which could include lost wages if, for example, the plaintiff is prevented from working as a result of an attack by a pet.
In certain states, a plaintiff in a pet injury case can recover for their emotional distress caused by the incident. Other states permit recovery of punitive damages against the pet owner, which can typically be awarded if your pet had a previous record of attacks on third parties (and yet was still insufficiently controlled so as to prevent the attack in question).
3. Injury to Another Animal
Under most state laws, if your pet attacks another person’s pet, you can be required to compensate the injured pet’s owner for veterinary bills or, if it should die, the market value of the pet. The grieving pet owner cannot, however, recover monetary damages for the emotional distress caused by the loss of their pet.
4. Special Category of Liability for Harm Caused by Wild Animals and Pit Bulls
Owners of wild animals, such as lions and bears, are strictly liable for the damages to property caused by those animals (if reasonably foreseeable), and for the injuries inflicted upon other people by the wild animals. This rule derives from the theory that wild animals can never be fully tamed and are thus considered “inherently dangerous.”
Similarly, several states consider pit bulls to be in the same category as wild animals. Unique among dogs, pit bulls are widely considered to possess certain characteristics – such as powerful jaw strength and a deadly biting technique, aggressiveness and a high tolerance for pain – that together create a unique risk for children and adults who encounter this breed. Under the law of several municipalities and states, including West Virginia, Ohio, the District of Columbia, Florida, Colorado, Utah, Kansas and Maryland, pit bulls are considered "inherently dangerous," thus giving rise to strict liability on the part of owners if and when the pit bull injures another person.
A few years ago, Maryland appellate court held that a pit bull’s (or cross-breed pit bull’s) owner can be held liable for a pit bull attack if the plaintiff merely shows that the owner knew that the dog was a pit bull or cross-breed pit bull at the time of the attack.
5. Criminal Liability
In rare cases, ownership of a pet that mauls or kills another person can result in criminal liability. An example of such a case was the 2001 prosecution of Robert Noel and his wife Marjorie Knoller for the death of lacrosse coach, Diane Whipple, who was mauled to death by two pit bulls owned by the Noels in January 2001. At the trial, witnesses testified that Knoller and Noel had repeatedly refused to control the dogs. Another witness testified that Noel told a professional dog walker to "shut up" when the dog walker had suggested that the couple muzzle the dogs. The jury found both Noel and Knoller guilty of involuntary manslaughter and owning a mischievous animal that caused a human being’s death; and they also found Knoller guilty of second-degree murder.
In May 2013, an owner of four pit bulls in Los Angeles was charged with murder after his dogs killed a female jogger, not long after the pit bulls had attacked three other individuals in non-fatal incidents. The dog’s owner was convicted in October 2014 and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
A couple of possible defenses for harm caused by your pet are provocation / assumption of risk and contributory negligence. If successful, these defenses will limit or potentially negate your liability.
Provocation / Assumption of Risk
A pet owner is typically not liable for injuries that the victim assumed the risk of incurring. If the person injured by your pet knowingly and willingly entered into a situation where they might be unsafe, they are legally considered to have assumed the risk of injury. Similarly, if the person that was injured by your pet encouraged or aggravated the incident, you may not be liable for their injuries.
If the victim contributed to their own attack (i.e., was contributorily negligent), in most states, you will only be liable for the percentage of the injury for which your pet is responsible. For example, if an owner puts up a "Beware of Dog" sign, and a third party ignores the sign and gets bitten by the dog, then the owner may not be responsible for the plaintiff’s injury. This inquiry can be context-specific: A mailman may have no choice but to ignore the sign in order to fulfill their duty to you in delivering the mail; similarly, a fireman will have to rush onto your property to save it from a fire.
A random stranger, however, is acting under no such duty if they wander onto your property. Similarly, if the "Beware of Dog" sign is large and prominent, this can give the property owner greater liability protection than a small sign with a small font that could easily be missed by a casual entrant onto your property.
The above article does not provide legal advice and instead provides general information.