How Texas law bites back hard with liability for pet owners, and what you can do to help stay out of the legal doghouse.
Since there’s absolutely no way your gentle, loving and loyal dog could ever-ever-ever harm anyone, this article is about all those other dogs out there. But on the off-chance your adorable pooch has a really bad day (or feels some peer pressure), here’s what Texas law says about your liability should Fido turn Bito…
As an owner of a dog, you can be held “strictly liable” under the law (meaning automatically liable!) IF:
1) Your dog previously bit a person or behaved like it wanted to,
2) You knew or had reason to know of your dog’s previous conduct.
That’s all the victim must prove to hold the owner of a biting dog legally responsible for the resulting injuries. And that’s not much, folks.
That’s what is so strict about “strict liability.” Under strict liability, all other facts and circumstances are pretty much irrelevant with one notable (and sometimes important) exception. The dog owner can use the defense of “assumption of the risk.” This means that IF the victim voluntarily exposed him/herself to a danger he/she knew and FULLY appreciated, the owner is not liable. But, the dog bite victim would have had to truly known Fido could become Bito. In other words, the victim fully appreciated the risk of what Bito could do and then chose to hang with him anyway.
But that’s not typically the situation in dog bite cases. If the victim did not fully understand the risk involved because of his/her age or lack of information, experience, intelligence or judgment, this defense does NOT apply in strict liability cases.
But wait, there’s more!
If the victim can’t prove Fido had a biting past or that the owner was aware of it (and therefore strict liability does NOT apply) there are ways a victim can still hold a dog owner responsible. For example, the owner can be sued for “negligence.” In a simple negligence case, the focus is more on the conduct of the owner with the allegation being “the owner failed to exercise reasonable care to prevent the animal from injuring others.” In this type of case, it’s not necessary for the victim to prove the dog previously bit someone or acted like it wanted to. There are more defenses available, however, to the owner in this type of case. The owner can claim, for example, the victim caused the incident by teasing or taunting the animal.
Dog bites are often difficult to prevent. Dogs act instinctively at times without warning…ALL dogs. Know your dog and be mindful of his/her surroundings. You can most often determine his environment and thereby his exposure to perceived threats. And keep your dog leashed at all times when in public. The general public deserves no less, and in most places local ordinances require it.
Overall, the law in Texas is tough on dog owners. That’s not going to change. If anything, our laws might get even tougher through a comprehensive statewide statute (something we don’t yet have).
Stay safe out there!