You love your dog. It would never bite anybody…unless they deserved or it was provoked. Deep down inside, it’s a good dog.
But what if your good dog bites someone? What can happen to you and the dog as a result?
The “One Free Bite” Rule
In some states, a defendant can argue that they are not responsible if the dog never bit anyone in the past. However, if you knew the animal was potentially vicious or dangerous, you may still be held liable.
Usually, you – the dog’s owner – are legally liable for the damage or injury your dog causes, but someone else may also share the blame if they were taking care of your dog and had control over it. Dog owners who are under age 18 may not be held liable in all cases, either.
The case can also be made against a landlord of the owner who knew the dog was dangerous and did nothing about it. Also, if the dog is on someone else’s property and that person did nothing to remove the dog, the property owner may be held liable.
Keepers and Harborers
Most states hold the person responsible who had custody over the dog and should have had control. In addition to the owner, a non-owner who is keeping the animal has responsibility for the safety of others with respect to a dangerous dog.
But what happens if someone is bitten by a stray dog you just occasionally feed? Are you known in your neighborhood as “the dog lady” because you welcome all four-footed furry friends? Does the fact that other people’s dogs prefer you make you a “keeper” or “harborer” in the eyes of the law?
You’re probably safe in this regard, because – in the words of a Minnesota court:
“Harboring or keeping a dog means something more than a meal of mercy to a stray dog or the casual presence of a dog on someone’s premises. Harboring means to afford lodging, to shelter or to give refuge to a dog. Keeping a dog…implies more than the mere harboring of the dog for a limited purpose or time. One becomes the keeper of a dog only when he either with or without the owner’s permission undertakes to manage, control or care for it as dog owners in general are accustomed to do.” (Verrett v. Silver, 244 N.W.2d 147 (Minn. 1976).
How long do you have to have control of the dog to be considered a keeper of the animal? The courts differ on this. It can be as brief as the time the dog is under the care of a groomer for a shampoo, a dog-walker for a stroll, or a kennel overnight.
In Seattle – which boasts more dogs than children – liability is limited to the owner. Mere keepers are not liable under Washington state law. But the law also defines “owner” as the keeper of the dog in some circumstance, so beware.