Many people see dogs as best friends or even family members. They can enhance the joy of good times and comfort us during bad times. However, owning a dog is a huge responsibility. Ohio State and Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott found this out the hard way two years ago. In May 2021, his Rottweiler got loose while a landscaping company was working at his home. The dog attacked and bit a neighbor who needed hospital treatment. Later that summer, she sued Elliott for over $1 million in damages. Elliott also received police citations based on the events of that day, during which three dogs escaped, and two people were injured.
Dogs, cats, and various other pets brighten the lives of many Justia team members. At the same time, we understand the realities of living with an animal and the concerns that this can pose. To help our fellow pet owners, we have created an Animal and Dog Law Center in our Justia Legal Guides. This resource also provides information for victims of dog bites and other animal attacks, who may have legal rights to assert.
Dog Bites & Related Problems
Dog owners often are liable when their canine companions cause injuries or property damage. However, the process of proving liability in dog bite cases varies. Many states impose strict liability, which means that a dog owner is required to compensate a victim regardless of whether they had reason to know that their dog was likely to bite someone. (Depending on the state, strict liability may or may not extend to attacks other than bites.) In a state that does not impose strict liability, or imposes it only in limited situations, a victim might be able to sue under the “one bite rule.” This means that the owner is liable if they should have known that the dog had a propensity to bite. Or a victim might be able to sue a dog owner under general negligence principles based on failing to reasonably control their dog.
Damages in these cases can be substantial. Victims may suffer significant pain, disfigurement, and psychological trauma, for which they can seek compensation. Dog owners likely will want to know whether they can limit or avoid liability by using defenses available in these cases. For example, a dog owner might be able to defend a case by showing that the victim provoked the dog or was illegally on the property. Or an assumption of risk defense may apply if the dog attacked a professional who had agreed to care for them. The availability and strength of these defenses may depend on the state and the type of victim involved.
Some dogs are classified as dangerous dogs under state or local laws. This designation usually arises from the behavior of a particular dog rather than general assumptions about its breed. The owner of a dangerous dog usually will need to take specific measures to protect other people from their dog, such as putting the dog in an enclosure or using a muzzle when walking the dog. Failing to follow the applicable rules can result in fines, vastly increased damages in a personal injury lawsuit, and even jail time in some cases. However, a dog owner can contest the designation of their dog as dangerous at a hearing.
While they are not necessarily dangerous, barking dogs tend to earn little goodwill for their owners from the neighbors. Some cities and counties have specific laws for these situations, which may be enforced by the local government. Animal control departments also may play a role in responding to these problems. If a neighbor cannot work out a solution with the dog owner, they also can consider filing a nuisance claim against the owner. They might pursue this type of case in small claims court, although they will need to go to regular court if they want a remedy other than monetary damages.
Protecting the Interests of Pets & Owners
Many pet owners think of their pets as essentially people, but the law (so far) tends not to see them that way. For example, if veterinary malpractice causes harm to a pet, an owner probably can recover damages only for the medical treatment needed to resolve the consequences of the malpractice. They generally cannot get non-economic damages like emotional distress, except in extreme cases. When a pet dies from malpractice, an owner can recover the financial value of the pet, but this may not feel like adequate compensation for the loss of this relationship.
Similarly, pets traditionally are treated as “property” in a divorce, rather than as “children.” This has meant that a judge likely will allocate a pet in a divorce to one spouse, although a recent trend has seen some judges awarding “shared custody” of a pet whom both spouses want. Or a judge may award “pet visitation” to the spouse who does not get ownership. In deciding who gets the pet, a judge may consider the best interests of the pet, as well as issues like where any children from the relationship will primarily live if the children are close to the pet.
Estate planning also may raise sensitive issues involving a beloved pet. As they get older, an owner may want to ensure that an animal who has been important to them gets the care that they need if the owner dies or cannot take care of them. All states have provided for pet trusts to serve this purpose. A pet owner can put funds in this trust that someone else can use to pay for the pet’s needs. They can also designate a caregiver for the pet. Pet trusts can be very detailed, describing issues like food preferences and exercise routines.
Whether you are a pet owner or a person whose life has been upended by someone else’s pet, you should understand your legal options. The law in this area can be complex and not always intuitive, especially for people who are emotionally invested in their pets. If you are concerned about possible liability based on your pet, or if you have been harmed by someone else’s pet, you may want to consult an animal law attorney about your specific situation. If a legal issue involving a pet comes up in the context of a divorce or estate plan, you may want to promptly bring that issue to the attention of the attorney advising you. In the meantime, the Animal and Dog Law Center provides a useful overview of this area. Like other Justia Legal Guides, it aims to make the law transparent and accessible to all.