Are You Responsible for Damage Caused by Your Pets? Understanding Animal Liability
Posted: July 12, 2023
Having all of the relevant information is an essential part of being a responsible pet owner. You may not realize it, but there are laws governing many aspects of pet ownership, including whether or not it’s illegal to let your dog poop on someone else’s lawn. While (hopefully) not relevant as often, animal liability is another important legal area to understand.
How Does Animal Liability Work?
While you may have done your research to find a breed known for being calm, there’s more than one way pets can cause damage. In addition to biting, relatively innocent things like digging up your neighbor’s flower beds might legally constitute damage.
Unsurprisingly, many of the laws regarding animal liability vary by state. In some states, including Massachusetts and California, pet owners are formally responsible for any damages caused by their animals. Even in strict animal liability states, however, there are a number of important standards for determining what counts as actionable damage.
Some particularly stringent laws hold pet owners automatically responsible for any damages the animal causes, no matter what. In most cases, however, some level of negligence on your part as a pet owner must be proven. Likewise, if a person either provoked your pet or was in the process of committing a crime, such as breaking into your property, you are not liable for any damages the animal incurred.
Tort Law and the “One-Bite” Rule
As with other lawsuits involving damages, the primary legal vehicle for handling animal liability cases is tort law. One particular legal principle, sometimes called the “one-bite rule,” is often cited.
The Restatement (Second) of Torts § 509 (Harm Done by Abnormally Dangerous Domestic Animals) states, “Except as stated in § 517, a possessor of a domestic animal which he has reason to know has dangerous propensities abnormal to its class, is subject to liability for harm caused thereby to others, except trespassers on his land, although he has exercised the utmost care to prevent it from doing the harm.”
While this clause has been colloquially referred to as the "one-bite rule," this nickname is something of a misnomer, as the language in Section 509 can apply to any injury caused by any domestic animal.
Another important aspect of § 509’s wording is that the law does not specify that the animal must have done this sort of thing before. This means that, for example, proof of a “dangerous propensity” in a biting case may not require a prior incident of biting a person. Rather, any conduct that should have put the owner, keeper, or harborer on notice that the animal wanted to bite a person is enough.
Laws vary from state to state, with some states adopting The Restatement (Second) of Torts §509—in whole or in part—in their statutes and court opinions (case law). It is important to be familiar with your state’s laws—both statutes and court opinions—and to have affordable, reliable access to an attorney to help you apply these laws to your unique circumstances.
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