Pet ownership is on the rise. It is estimated that there are now 75 million dogs in the United States. Every year, unfortunately, our “best friends” bite more than 4,000,000 people, most of whom are children. One out of every six dog bites is serious enough to require medical attention.
Not surprisingly, the most common lawsuit involving animals is for injuries caused by dog bites. In Arizona, the Legislature has enacted strict liability statutes covering dog bites. Additionally, a separate common-law negligence claim may be asserted against the owner of a dog with dangerous propensities We will look at each basis for liability.
One statutory provision renders the dog owner or caretaker fully responsible for damages to any person or property caused by a dog while at large. Another provision states that the owner of a dog which bites a person is liable for damages suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of its viciousness, when the victim is:
- in or on a public place, or
- lawfully in or on a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog.
These statutes impose strict liability on the dog owner, because they make the owner liable for damages regardless of the owner’s negligence.
Proof of provocation of the attack by the person injured is the only defense to a statutory action for damages. The issue of provocation is determined by whether a reasonable person would expect that the conduct or circumstances would be likely to provoke a dog.
Illustration: A groomer, bitten by a dog while working at a pet hospital, was “lawfully in or on a private place” when he was bitten, and therefore, absent provocation, the owner was liable for the dog bite under the statute imposing strict liability on the owner regardless of fault.
A person is “lawfully in or on” the private property of the owner of a dog when there as an invitee or guest. The statute does not impose liability for injuries to a trespasser caused by a dog.
A separate common-law negligence claim may be asserted based on the owner’s knowledge of the dog’s dangerous propensities. Under this theory of liability, the owner is liable regardless of his exercise of care if he knew, or should have known, of the dog’s dangerous tendencies.
The dog bite victim must prove, however, that the owner knew or had reason to know of such characteristics. This proof is not required for a statutory claim, as discussed above. Punitive damages may be recovered based on a history of the dog’s viciousness and the owner’s inaction.
If a common-law negligence claim is more difficult to prove than a strict-liability statutory claim (which does not require evidence of the owner’s negligence), why would anyone bring a negligence claim? The answer may lie in the time deadlines to assert the claims.
The statutory claim must be brought within one year, but the negligence claim can be brought within two years. In this respect, the negligence claim has an advantage over the statutory claim. (Note: if the victim is a minor, the time does not start running until he or she turns 18.)
Animal Bite Reporting
Each county has an enforcement agent. Whenever an animal bites any person, by law the incident must be reported to the county enforcement agent immediately by any person having direct knowledge. In Maricopa County, a dog bite may be reported to Maricopa County Animal Care and Control, by calling (602) 506-7387.
All dogs that have bitten are required by law to be quarantined for 10 days. Dogs that are under quarantine are monitored for rabies. A dog that is properly vaccinated and licensed at the time of the bite may be quarantined in the owner’s home.
If a dog bite victim believes that the dog is a serious threat, he can file a vicious dog petition with the city or justice court. The law defines a vicious animal as one that has a propensity to attack, to cause injury to or to otherwise endanger the safety of human beings without provocation. If the judge determines, after a hearing, that the dog is vicious, the judge may place restrictions on the dog’s release—such as that the dog wear a muzzle in public— or the judge may order that the dog be destroyed.
The above article is an excerpt from Arizona Laws 101: A Handbook for Non-Lawyers, 2nd Edition (Fenestra Books, 2012), by Donald A. Loose, republished with the author’s permission.
Disclaimer: Laws change constantly. Specific legal advice should be obtained regarding any legal matter. The information contained on this website does not constitute legal advice and no attorney-client relationship is created.
Don likes to target shoot, scuba dive, and pilot airplanes. Most recently, he has been working on his golf handicap. Don enjoys writing, reading, and spending time with his wife, twin sons, and golden retriever, Lucy.