Who is Liable for a Dog Attack in Pennsylvania?

Liability for Dog Bite Lies with Owner

If a dog bites you, the first thing your Pennsylvania dog bite lawyer will determine is: who is the owner of the dog? In Pennsylvania, the owner of an dog can be held liable for the injuries it inflicts, provided that the owner knew (or had reason to know) that the dog had “dangerous propensities.” In other words, if a dog owner knows that his or her dog is dangerous and could cause personal injury to a person, the dog’s owner can be held liable for the dog’s harmful actions.

In dog bite lawsuits, determining whether an owner knew of an dog’s “dangerous propensities” can be difficult. The first question that often arises in dog bite claims for making this determination is whether the owner needs to know the dog’s potential for harm, or whether the owner only needs to know that type of dog is potentially dangerous. For example, when a person has a Pit Bull, does that mean the owner knows or should know the Pit Bull will bite, just because Pit Bulls can be a breed that bites?

Most dog bite claims have ended with the conclusion that a dog owner is responsible for knowing both particular and general potential for his dog to cause harm. Thus, even if a Pit Bull owner had never seen his dog act viciously, he could be held responsible for a Pit Bull attack because of the propensity of Pit Bulls in general to be aggressive dogs. The owner is said to have “constructive notice” of the dog’s vicious propensitites.

Vicious propensity can be inferred from the circumstances of the dog attack. If a trained guard dog attacks, a court could infer the owner knew or should have known the dog would attack someone who entered the area the dog was guarding.

Pennsylvania imposes what is known as “strict liability” upon dog owners whose dog bites or attacks. Under the theory of strict liability, an owner is legally responsible (liable) for a dog bite, regardless of whether the owner did anything wrong with respect to protecting others from attack. Under this theory, even if the owner had no reason to know that their dog was dangerous, if it bit someone, the owner would still be liable.

Potential Defenses in Dog Bite Lawsuits

There are instances in which an owner of a vicious dog might not be held liable for an attack by the dog. For example, if the dog owner adequately warned other people that the dog was dangerous, and took measures to keep it away from people, a person who ignored the owner’s warnings and was injured by the dog might not successfully sue the owner. In legal terms, the personal injury victim’s behavior is known as “contributory negligence” or “assumption of the risk.” An injured person is contributorily negligent when he or she fails to exercise the degree of care for his or her safety that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances. For example, if a person climbs over a fence and is bitten by a Rottweiler on the other side, a jury could decide not to hold the Rottweiler owner liable if they believed that a normal person would not have climbed over the wall in the first place.

An dog owner might also escape liability if the personal injury was created by the person’s “assumed the risk” of an attack by the dog. If the owner can show that the person bitten by his or her dog had actual knowledge of the risk of injury from the dog, but voluntarily exposed him or herself to that risk anyway, a court can bar the injured person from recovering damages. For example, if the owner puts up a “Beware of Dog” sign, and a person ignores this sign and gets bitten by the dog, the owner might not be responsible for that person’s injury. If the dog owner is claiming either “assumption of risk” or “contributory negligence,” however, the owner has the burden of convincing the jury of these arguments.

A dog owner can also argue that the personal injury occurred when the person provoked the dog, and this may be a way for the owner to avoid liability. For example, if a person makes a threatening gesture toward a dog, and the dog attacks, this could negate the owner’s liability.

The relationship between the owner and the personal injury victim can also affect the owner’s liability. For example, if the owner invites someone over to his/her property, and the invited person (known legally as an “invitee”) is injured, the owner can be held responsible if he did not warn the invitee of the potential danger of the dog. On the other hand, if someone is trespassing on the owner’s property, the owner will probably not be liable for dog bites sustained by the trespasser (unless the injury is intentionally caused by the owner).

Other Potential Responsible Parties in Dog Bite Cases

Dog owners are not the only people who can be held responsible for dog bites. Here are a few common scenarios where someone other than an dog owner could be held liable for a dog bite:

  • Animal Keepers: Anyone who is responsible for the care or custody of a dog may be considered an owner or keeper and can be held responsible for a dog bite. Examples include kennels, a pound, or an animal sitter.
  • Parents of Minors: Even if a person under 18 years of age owns the dog at issue, in Pennsylvania, an injured person can bring a legal claim against the minor’s parents, even if the parents had no involvement with the dog.
  • Property Owners: A property owner can be liable for injuries caused by a dog the property owner has allowed onto his or her property.
  • Landlords: If an apartment landlord knew (or should have known) that a tenant owned a dangerous dog, the landlord may also be liable for dog bite injuries.
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If you or a loved one were bitten by a dog in Pennsylvania, please contact me for a free consultation.