Dog Owner Liability for Dog Bites

You have a cute, friendly dog who has never, and you don’t believe could ever, hurt anyone without good reason. But then it happens. Your dog attacks. You believe he was provoked, or was trying to protect you. But the person who was attacked says otherwise and brings a claim against you. Under what circumstances are you liable for the injuries caused by your dog?

Although we represent parties harmed by dog attacks, we nonetheless are providing the laws applicable in Nevada not only to inform those owning dogs and who have been attacked by them, but also in the hopes that the best practices we present herein will serve to help prevent future attacks. As satisfying as it is to help a client get compensated for injuries, we would much rather those injuries never occur in the first place.

Nevada, unlike many other states, does not have a statute specific to dog bites. For example, in Utah, the dog-bite statute is a strict liability statute, meaning that the dog owner has very few defenses—if he owns the dog, or has control over it, he’ll almost always be liable.

Other states are at the other end of the spectrum and have adopted what’s known as the one-bite rule. The one-bite rule gives immunity to a dog’s owner for the first attack of a dog. In other words, the dog gets one free pass, and then after that the owner is on notice that the dog has vicious propensities and will be liable for harm caused from future attacks.

Negligence

Because Nevada does not have a specific statute addressing the issue, we analyze a dog-owner’s liability under standard negligence principles. Indeed, according to the Nevada Supreme Court, dog owners are “required to conform to normal standards of reasonableness under general principles of tort law.”[1. Harry v. Smith, 111 Nev. 528, 533, 893 P.2d 372, 375 (1995).]

In Nevada, to prove negligence, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant (in this case, the dog owner) owed a duty of care to the plaintiff, breached that duty of care, and that the breach of duty was the actual and proximate cause of damages to the plaintiff.

In most dog-bite cases, it is not going to be difficult to prove that the dog attack was the cause of the injuries. The real question is going to be whether the dog owner breached some duty of care to the plaintiff.

These cases, like many others, will turn on the facts. Here are some questions whose answers will be relevant in determining whether you, as the dog owner, breached a duty of care:

  • Had the dog attacked anyone before?[2. Even though we don’t have the one-bite rule, evidence of prior attacks is still relevant to show what actions you should have taken considering your knowledge of the dog’s past.]
  • Where was the dog when it attacked? Was it in your home? Was it in the plaintiff’s home?
  • What were you doing when the dog attacked?
  • Was there some perceived threat to which the dog was responding?
  • What was the plaintiff doing when the dog attacked? Was the plaintiff trespassing on your property?
  • Was there a fence around the dog?
  • Whose responsibility was it to watch the dog?

What facts are relevant are really going to depend on the circumstances of the case. Different facts will matter for someone attacked by a dog out for a walk with its owner than for someone visiting someone with a dog in their home.

Ultimately, liability will be decided after assessing the weight of all relevant evidence, and the plaintiff bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence (meaning more likely than not that the facts support her theory).

Negligence Per Se

A victim of a dog bite can prove breach and duty without looking at the entirety of the facts if she can show that you, as a dog owner, were violating some law, code, or ordinance designed to prevent dog attacks.

For example, if you were walking your dog without a leash, that in and of itself is a breach of a duty because both Henderson and Las Vegas have city municipal codes requiring that a dog be either confined on private property, on a leash when out in public, or in a designated fenced dog park.[3. Henderson Municipal Code 7.08.020 Animals at LargeLas Vegas Municipal Code 7.36.030 At Large.]

There is also a state criminal statute that sets forth whether a dog will be labeled “dangerous,” or “vicious.”[4. NRS 202.500.] Although criminal in nature, this statute can still form the basis for cvil liability under theories of negligence per se.

A “dangerous” dog is one it makes two unprovoked attacks (or “behaved menacingly”) within 18 months, if the dog is either (1) off the premises of its owner or keeper or (2) not confined in a cage, pen, or vehicle.

If your dog has killed or inflicted serious bodily harm in the past, or if it has been labeled “dangerous” and continues to attack people without provocation, or if you use your dog to help you commit a crime, then it can be labeled “vicious,” which means you have seven days to get rid of your dog (and not just transferring its ownership).

A dog cannot be labeled “dangerous” or “vicious” merely because of its breed (the dog anti-discrimination statute).

Thus, if your dog has been labeled “dangerous” or “vicious” and harms someone, you will most certainly be held accountable under the law.

Laws, codes, and ordinances other than those mentioned herein may also apply.

Defenses

There are several defenses against allegations of negligence based on a dog bite. Nevada has a modified comparative negligence statute, and will not hold dog owners accountable if the plaintiff was more than 50% at fault for her own injuries (like if the plaintiff provokes the dog).

Additionally, dogs are justified in attacking human beings if it is to protect themselves or others from physical harm.

Other more broadly applicable defenses also apply, like the statute of limitations for negligence (two years for bodily injury from negligence).

Best Practices for Dog Owners

Owning a dog comes with measurable risk. For most dog owners, that is a risk worth taking, but that doesn’t mean they should not take steps to mitigate that risk. Even if your dog attacks someone in a manner that the law will ultimately uphold as justified, that doesn’t mean it won’t be expensive to prove it.

If you own a dog, no matter how docile, consider the following best practices:

  • Make sure you have homeowner’s insurance (or renter’s insurance) that covers dog bites. The easiest thing to do if your dog attacks someone is to turn the matter over to your insurance company and have it hire you an attorney and ultimately pay out any damages that are settled or awarded.
  • Keep your dog on a leash when it is not confined in your yard or in a dog park. You want to be seen as taking reasonable steps to protect others from your dog—and reasonableness is the hallmark of a negligence case.
  • When you have guests in your home, be aware of where your dog is at all times and how the guests are interacting with your dog. Children, for example, don’t know that their behavior may be perceived as threatening to a dog (I have a daughter who used to like poking dogs in the eyes). If in doubt, put your dog away while the guest is over.
  • If your dog is kept in the yard (or has access to it through a doggy door), make sure there is no easy way for children to access your yard or for your dog to escape.[See another blog post I wrote discussing, in part, the attractive nuisance doctrine.]
  • Put up a “beware of dog” sign to warn those with a legitimate reason to be on your property, like someone delivering a package or the utility man reading your meter.

If you follow these practices, it is our hope that your dog will never harm another human being, and we’ll never have reason to sue you.

 

Zachariah B. Parry is an attorney and founding partner at the law firm Parry & Pfau and is an adjunct professor who teaches torts, contracts, and Nevada practice and procedure for UNLV’s paralegal program. He can be reached at 702-912-4451 or zach@p2lawyers.com.