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Dog Bite Liability – What Horse Owners and Stables Should Know

Horse owners are often dog owners. While horse owners may concern themselves with liabilities associated with horse ownership, they may lose sight of liabilities associated with their dogs. Dog bites can cause serious injuries, and litigation can follow.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year.  Dog bites and dog-related injuries generally accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claim dollars paid last year, according to the Insurance Information Institute.  

This article discusses dog bite liabilities along with suggestions for avoiding legal disputes.

Dog Bite Strict Liability Laws

Most states have abolished the traditional “one-bite rule” (where dog bite liability required proof that the dog had a propensity for viciousness of which the owner or keeper was aware) and have enacted dog bite statutes. These statutes impose some form of strict liability on owners or keepers of dogs.  Although statutes differ, they typically provide for the following:

  • The animal owner (and sometimes, depending on the law, the animal keeper) is strictly liable for injuries inflicted by the dog without regard to whether the dog showed vicious propensities in the past.
  • The injured person must not have been a trespasser and, instead, must have been injured in the location where he or she was lawfully permitted to be.
  • If the injured person provoked the animal, he or she cannot recover.      

Defenses

Defense of Provocation

Lawsuits involving dog bites and dog-inflicted injuries, particularly in states with strict liability laws, often focus on the defense of provocation. Courts have disagreed on what qualifies as provocation.  In one case, a court dismissed a case based on a finding that the plaintiff (the one who was injured) provoked the dog by unintentionally stepping on its foot. Yet, in another case, a court held that a jury needed to decide the issue of provocation where evidence showed that the plaintiff, a child, stepped on a dog's tail immediately before being bitten.  In an interesting case, dogs trespassed onto the plaintiff’s property and were about to attack the plaintiff’s cats.  As the plaintiff kicked and pulled on the dogs while trying to protect her cats, one of the dogs bit her. The court ruled that she did not “provoke” the dogs, and her case could continue, because as the dogs were already in a “provoked state” at the time, and she did not cause the provocation before the bite.

Trespass

By definition, a “trespasser” is someone who enters another’s property unlawfully.  In dog bite cases, issues sometimes focus on whether the plaintiff had “implied permission” to enter the dog owner’s property under the circumstances and was not a trespasser.  In one case, the plaintiff, a child, placed her hand through a fence in an effort to pet a neighbor’s dog but was bitten; the court ruled that she was trespassing, and her case was properly dismissed. 

Comparative Fault of the Person Bitten

Usually in states without dog bite statutes, comparative fault of the injured person (such as contributory negligence or comparative negligence, depending on state law) is a defense to a dog bite case. A small number of states with strict liability dog bite statutes allow dog owners to raise this defense.

Avoiding Liability

Among the many options available to avoid liability, here a few ideas:

  • Insurance. Certainly, liability insurance cannot prevent injuries, but proper coverage can protect you against financial consequences that may occur. Make sure you are properly insured for the consequences of a dog-inflicted injury claim or suit that could be brought against you. Also, make sure that your insurance coverage contains no exclusions for dogs in general or for a particular breed of dogs that you own or keep. Read your insurance policy carefully and/or discuss your coverage with your insurance agent or lawyer.
  • Secure your dogs. Keep them under control.
  • Follow ordinances and leash laws.
  • Evaluate possible aggression. If you believe your dog has shown aggressive behavior, consider consulting with professionals, such as your veterinarian or a dog trainer, to evaluate this further, and take caution before allowing others to approach, handle, or keep your dog.

This article does not constitute legal advice. When questions arise based on specific situations, direct them to a knowledgeable attorney.

Categories: Did you Know?, Lawsuit, Liability

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is considered to be one of the nation's leading attorneys in the field of equine law. A frequent author and speaker on legal issues, she has written over 400 published articles, three books, and has lectured at seminars, conventions, and conferences in 29 states on issues involving law, liability, risk management, and insurance. For more information, please also visit www.fershtmanlaw.com and www.equinelaw.net, and www.equinelaw.info.

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Julie Fershtman, author of our popular and prolific Equine Law Blog, was interviewed this week by the State Bar of Michigan. The interview, which called Fershtman "Lawyer-Blogger," discussed our Equine Law Blog. We truly believe that this blog is the nation's most active blog serving the equine industry on equine law topics, and we thank you for visiting it. Read more here.

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Congratulations, Julie! We're proud to share that Julie Fershtman has received two prestigious awards.

On April 13, 2013, she received the American Youth Horse Council's 2013 "Distinguished Service" Award. As the award itself states, she received it "[i]n recognition of years of dedicated service to the American Youth Horse Council and tireless efforts to touch the lives of youth involved with horses." For more information about the American Youth Horse Council, please visit www.ayhc.com/.

On May 7, 2013, Julie received the 2013 "Industry Award" from the Michigan Equine Partnership for her work over the years supporting legislation to promote and protect the Michigan equine industry. For more information about the Michigan Equine Partnership, please visit www.miequine.com/.

RECENT EQUINE LAW COURTROOM VICTORY

We're pleased to share that Julie just won a case in Michigan where she defended a boarding and training stable that was sued by a visitor who was injured in the barn aisle. Julie cautions that this case might have been avoided altogether if the stable required every visitor to sign its waiver/release of liability. (Julie, interestingly, drafted that stable's release document years ago but the stable only presented it to customers.) Make sure that your release is well-worded and complies with the laws of your state.

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Large Step Forward for the Horse Industry

We applaud the American Horse Council (www.horsecouncil.org) for its national marketing initiative for the horse industry. The AHC joined together ten national associations and large corporate industry stakeholders to make this happen. We await its marketing plan, which will propose ways to help people become more interested in horses and equine activities, either as participants or spectators.

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Did you know Julie Fershtman has spoken at the American Horse Council Annual Meeting, Equine Affaire, Midwest Horse Fair, Equitana USA, US Dressage Federation Annual Meeting, North American Riding for the Handicapped (now PATH International) Annual Meeting, American Morgan Horse Association Annual Meeting, American Paint Horse Association Annual Meeting, US Pony Clubs, Inc.'s Annual Meeting, All-American Quarter Horse Congress, American Youth Horse Council Annual Meeting, American Riding Instructors Association Annual Meeting, CHA Annual Meeting, and numerous others? Consider signing her up for your convention. Contact Julie.

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