Yes. Pets are the personal property of the owner. This means that their owners can be personally liable for any injuries they inflict onto others or onto anyone’s property. Typically people think of animal injuries associated with dog (dog bites), but any injury or property damage caused by your pet, whether the pet is a dog, cat, snake, rabbit, bird, etc., can expose you to liability.

In most states, the liability of a pet owner, and in particular a dog owner, is established by statute.

What’s the Liability of a Dog Owner?

Dog bite liability depends largely on what state, and even which city or county, where you reside. States such as California, Florida and Massachusetts expose any dog owner to liability for the dog’s conduct. These are known as strict liability states, where the dog owner is strictly liable for the conduct of their dog.

There are exceptions when you aren’t liable for your dog’s conduct. If the victim is a criminal and was bitten in the commission of a felony (such as robbing a bank), or if the victim provoked the dog, then you would not be liable. Also, you would not be liable to a trespasser on your property who is bitten by your dog.

Other states, like New York, Texas and Oregon, only hold the owner liable if the owner had reason to know or should have known the dog had aggressive propensities.

How Can Animal Owners Protect Themselves from Liability?

As a pet owner, to protect yourself from liability, there are a couple of things you can do.

First, consider obtaining homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, especially if you live in a state where you are considered responsible for your dog’s attacks unless there are extraneous circumstances. Check your policy to see whether dog bites on your property are covered. Some insurance companies do not cover animals or certain dog breeds, such as pit bulls, which are considered more dangerous and aggressive dogs.

Second, knowledge is power. Look into your state, county, and city’s ordinance regarding dog ownership. Some states have “strict liability” statutes as mentioned above. These statutes make you legally responsible for any injuries your dog inflicts by virtue of you being the animal’s owner.

What are Defenses to Dog Bite Claims?

If your dog bite another person, the following defenses may be pleaded:

  • Provocation: If the person injured provoked or aggravated the dog, you may not be liable for the resulting injury.
  • Contributory negligence: In states that adopt a contributory negligence standard, you may be liable only for the percentage by which a court finds you liable as the dog owner. In other words, if the victim contributed to the attack, your liability may be limited.
  • Assumption of the risk: If you gave plenty of warning to others about your dog’s aggressive tendencies and the victim willingly entered the situation knowing it may not be safe, they have assumed the risk of the injury.

Can Veterinarians Sue Pet Owners for their Injuries?

Typically, veterinarians cannot sue pet owners if the pet bites during a vet visit. Veterinarians, by virtue of their profession, assume a certain amount of risk when working with any animal. Further, a veterinarian’s job sometimes is to poke and prod at an animal, which often leads to an involuntary reaction by the animal. Finally, some courts hold that veterinarians become its temporary owner after they receive custody of the dog, thereby removing the actual owner’s liability when the pet is in the vet’s care.

There are a couple exceptions. An owner can still be liable if the pet is unusually ill-tempered and the owner does not warn the veterinarian. Additionally, a vet’s employees can sue the vet if their employer fails to properly protect her employees from unnecessary risks posed by the animal.

Do I Need an Attorney?

If you or your child has been bitten by someone’s dog and you are considering suing the dog’s owner, speak with a personal injury attorney. Working with a knowledgeable personal injury attorney can help you understand your rights and obligations, as well as help you deal with the complicated legal system.