When you’re the victim of a dog bite, it may be difficult to determine who to blame. Certainly, the dog committed the act, but you can’t sue an animal. Pets are considered the legal property of their owners. Thus, if a dog bites you, the owner is responsible. Simply putting up a “Beware of Dog” sign will not protect owners from liability. They have a responsibility to keep the dog physically controlled through barriers, restraints, or other appropriate means.
Failure to keep a pet under control is a form of negligence. Many personal injury lawsuits revolve around this concept. Put simply, “negligence” means that someone failed to do something, and another person was hurt as a result.
In Texas, assigning liability to a pet owner isn’t a simple, straight line. There are many factors to consider. Let’s take a look at dog bite laws and how they affect liability in Texas courtrooms.
How to Prove Dog Bite Negligence in Court
For a dog bite lawsuit to be successful, the plaintiff must prove three things:
- The defendant is the owner or possessor of the animal in question.
- The owner failed in their responsibility to keep the animal from hurting someone.
- Because the owner failed to meet their responsibility, someone was injured.
Factors to Consider in a Dog Bite Lawsuit
The Dog’s History
First, you must consider the history of the animal. Have they bitten or attacked someone before? If so, Texas can have the dog legally declared “vicious.” Owners of vicious dogs must keep their animals behaved. They should take extra precautions such as keeping them locked behind gates, muzzling them during a walk, keeping them on short leashes, etc.
One of the key elements in a dog bite lawsuit is the owner’s prior knowledge. The plaintiff must demonstrate, in court, that the owner knew of the dog’s past behavior and didn’t implement the necessary safety measures. Under Texas law, failure to control a dog with a violent background falls under “strict liability.”
If a dog has no history of prior attacks, it is harder to sue the owner. Such a lawsuit is possible, but courts understand that dogs are only animals. Even the gentlest, most well-behaved canines sometimes react on instinct. It is possible to recover damages if you are the first person the dog has ever bitten, but it is difficult. The result of your lawsuit could mean that the dog is declared vicious, and the owner will need to take extra care in the future. Since that history does not exist before your incident, it’s harder to claim negligence.
Negligence Per Se
In U.S. law, “negligence per se” is a form of strict liability. Essentially, people are expected to obey the law. If they violate the law, that is a form of negligence. If a person violates the law and injures someone else, that is “negligence per se.” For example, it is illegal to street race. When someone is hurt by another’s speed racing, they can use the negligence per se doctrine as the basis of the lawsuit.
In dog bite cases, negligence per se refers to laws the owner should have already been obeying. For example, owners are expected to walk their dogs on leashes. If an unleashed dog rushes across the street and attacks you, you have cause to sue under the negligence per se doctrine.
The dog’s owner isn’t the only one who can be held liable for the dog’s behavior. Landlords, too, may have a responsibility for your safety. Once again, we must assume prior knowledge on the part of the landlord. If they knew that there was a vicious dog on their property, they have a responsibility to keep that dog away from others.
Even if they are renting the property to that dog’s owners, the landlord has a responsibility to know about any pets on their property. If they agree to let these dog owners live on their land, they must also take responsibility for that dog’s behavior. This is true for any snake, cat, bird, or iguana that lives on their property as well.
Comparative Negligence Law
State law accepts that people can be responsible for their own injuries. For example, a driver may not automatically be at fault for hitting a pedestrian. If the pedestrian was jaywalking at night while wearing dark clothes, courts can rule that the pedestrian was at least partially responsible for their injuries.
Comparative negligence laws assign a percentage of blame to both parties involved in a dog bite. Perhaps you were walking along a sidewalk, completely unaware that there was a dog in the area. Suddenly, a dog pounces onto your back and knocks you over, injuring you. The judge is not likely to assign you any blame for that injury. However, if you were tormenting a dog by poking it with a stick, and it attacked you, the courts may determine that you were at least partially responsible for this attack. In Texas, when a plaintiff if found 51% or more at fault for their own injuries, they cannot receive any compensation.