Most dog owners will tell you that Fido or Spot is just like a member of the family. And the law often agrees with them – which means that people may have complex legal rights and responsibilities when a pet is injured, or when someone is injured by a pet. For instance, if a dog bites someone, the owner might be legally responsible to pay compensation for the harm…and other people might be responsible, too, depending on the circumstances. As with many things, the law varies from situation to situation, so it’s important to consult with an attorney to determine your rights. As a general rule, dog owners have a legal duty be careful in handling and securing their pets. In some states, how careful the owner has to be depends on whether the owner has reason to believe that the dog is dangerous. Sometimes, in order to be compensated, a dog-bite victim must prove that the dog had previously bitten someone else, or at least snapped or growled at people and gave indications that it might be unsafe. But in other states, the court system has rejected this rule, saying it’s unfair to innocent victims. In these states, a dog owner might be responsible for any harm caused by a pet, even if the owner wasn’t “on notice” that the dog might attack.
And the result often depends on the specific situation – for instance, whether the dog was on a leash, whether the victim was trespassing at the time or provoked the animal, and even whether the dog bit the victim as opposed to causing other harm such as by tripping or frightening someone. The result can even depend on the breed of the pet. For instance, some courts have decided that a dog owner has to be extra careful if the animal is a pit bull or similar breed – because no matter how nicely the dog has behaved in the past, these particular breeds have a history of aggressive behavior. Sometimes, people other than the dog owner can be responsible for a dog bite. For instance, in a recent case in Minnesota, a young man and his dog Bruno visited the man’s father. On a walk, Bruno attacked a miniature schnauzer. When the schnauzer’s owner tried to separate the two dogs, he fell and broke his hip. The schnauzer’s owner sued the father, and the Minnesota Supreme Court said the father could be responsible even though he wasn’t actually Bruno’s owner. That’s because the father allowed his son to bring Bruno to his house, laid down rules for Bruno while visiting, and apparently helped take care of the dog while it was at his home. Sometimes, a landlord can be held responsible for a tenant’s dogs. For instance, the Connecticut Supreme Court recently held that a tenant in public housing who was attacked by another tenant’s dog could sue the local housing authority for neglecting to enforce provisions in the lease prohibiting dangerous pets. The housing authority argued that it wasn’t the owner or keeper of the dog, but the court said the authority apparently knew the dog was dangerous and was required to protect tenants from known dangers on the property. While dog-bite victims can often be compensated for their injuries, another question is what happens if it’s the pet that’s injured. Do pet owners have any rights if someone carelessly injures their beloved animal? Long ago, the legal rule was that any animal you owned was considered your property. If someone carelessly harmed your animal, you could sue for the “market value” of the animal – in exactly the same way that if someone totaled your car, you could sue for its “blue book” value. That’s still the rule in most places, but occasionally a court will decide that a pet is more like a member of the family, and that harm to a pet is different from harm to an inanimate object. For instance, the California Supreme Court recently decided a case in which a man who was upset over a boundary dispute injured his neighbor’s miniature pinscher with a baseball bat. The Court allowed the neighbor to sue for his emotional distress as well as the dog’s veterinary expenses. And another California court recently required a veterinarian who had carelessly nicked a dog’s intestine during a surgical procedure to compensate the dog’s owners for the $38,000 they paid for emergency treatment to save their pet.