All fifty American states have well-defined laws which make a dog owner liable for bite injuries inflicted to the plaintiff. Generally, dog bite laws are based on the theories of strict liability, common law or negligence.
Strict liability law states that even if a dog is placid and has never bitten a person prior to an incident in question, the owner is still strictly liable for damages. California and Arizona are states with strict liability. On the other hand, dog bite law in Texas and New York states where the owner must have possessed actual knowledge of the risk their dog presented to people before they can be held liable.
The law specifying strict liability for dog bites is relatively straightforward provided that the language of the law is fairly specific. However, there are viable defenses to strict liability law, particularly that of provocation, as explained elsewhere on this website. Common-law theory as it applies to dog bite liability specifies that the burden is on the plaintiff to gather evidence proving that the owner or landlord knew about a dog’s dangerous propensities prior to the incident subject of a lawsuit.
In California and other states the law becomes a bit more tricky if a dog makes contact with the person but does not inflict a bite. In this instance, the plaintiff must prove negligence or that the owner should have known or must have known about the dog’s dangerous propensity with regard to the specific behavior that caused injury to the plaintiff (e.g. jumping up on a person, chasing after a motorcycle, running between a person’s legs).
There are also instances when a dog causes injury to a person without making physical contact. A recent state Supreme Court ruling on a Nebraska dog bite lawsuit in January, 2016 addressed this issue. The case involved two unrestrained, off-leash dogs which charged the plaintiff causing her to fall and injure her elbow. The dogs did not make physical contact with her. Rather, the owner was able to call the dogs back to her before they contacted the plaintiff, Jolene Grammar.
Nonetheless, Grammar sued the dog owner. The lower court granted summary judgment on the basis that Grammar failed to prove that the dogs chased her with the intent of catching or causing injury. Nebraska law defines a chase by a dog as “following quickly or persistently in order to catch or harm.” Apparently, the lower court ruled that there was no conclusive evidence indicating the dog’s intent was to cause harm to the plaintiff – hence, summary judgment. The case was appealed and the Nebraska Supreme Court reasoned that the lower court did not fully consider the various definitions of “chase” and that it failed to fully consider the alleged injuries Grammer sustained.
From my perspective in animal behavior, summary judgment may have been justified because the law is rather ambiguous with regard to the word “intent”. Intent is rather subjective and open to interpretation and can only be conclusively demonstrated with overwhelming evidence indicating that these dogs were dangerous in nature prior to the incident in question.
Richard H Polsky, PhD is an animal behavior expert specializing in dog bite cases. He welcomes assignments from Nebraska attorneys handling dog related personal injury lawsuits.