Dog bites can lead to severe physical and emotional injuries, and understanding the laws surrounding these incidents is crucial. Washington D.C.’s laws regarding dog bites are somewhat unique, as the District operates under a mix of “strict liability” and the “one bite rule.”
Overview of District of Columbia Dog Bite Law
In most states, dog bite laws usually fall under one of two categories: “strict liability” or the “one bite rule.”
Under strict liability, a dog owner is responsible for injuries caused by their dog, regardless of whether the dog has been aggressive or bitten someone in the past.
The one-bite rule, on the other hand, suggests that the owner can only be held responsible if they were aware of their dog’s propensity to bite or act aggressively. In other words, the dog must have bitten someone or shown aggression before the incident in question for the owner to be held liable.
Dog Bite Law in Washington D.C.
Washington D.C. applies a mixture of these two laws. According to D.C. Code § 8-1812, an owner is strictly liable for any injury, death, or loss to person or property that is caused by their dog while at large. This is irrespective of the viciousness or dangerous propensities of the dog or the owner’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of such propensities.
However, in situations where the dog was not “at large,” D.C. applies the one bite rule. This means if the dog was under the control of the owner, the owner can only be held liable if they knew or should have known about the dog’s dangerous propensities.
Defining “At Large”
A critical factor in D.C.’s dog bite law is determining whether the dog was “at large” at the time of the incident. A dog is considered to be at large when it is off the owner’s premises and not under the immediate control, by leash or otherwise, of the owner or another capable and responsible person.
Section 8-1808 states, “No owner of an animal shall allow the animal to go at large.” The term “at large” is defined in Section 8-1801(a)(1)(A) as “… any animal found off the premises of its owner and neither leashed nor otherwise under the immediate control of a person capable of physically restraining it.”
Proving a Dog Bite Case in D.C.
The injured party must prove several elements in a dog bite case under the one-bite rule:
- The defendant is the owner of the dog.
- The dog had vicious or dangerous tendencies.
- The owner knew or should have known about the dog’s vicious or dangerous tendencies.
- The injury resulted from the dog’s vicious or dangerous tendencies.
- It’s important to note that even if all these elements are proven, the owner can still defend themselves by proving that the victim provoked the dog or was trespassing on the owner’s property at the time of the incident.
Under the strict liability rule, the injured party only needs to prove that the dog was at large and that the defendant is the owner of the dog.
The Role of Animal Control
Animal control officers in D.C. have the power to impound any dog found running at large. They can also impound any dog, whether at large or not, if they believe the dog is dangerous and poses a threat to public safety. If a dog has been declared dangerous, it must be kept securely indoors or in a locked pen or structure at all times, and it must be muzzled and restrained by a substantial chain or leash when outside this enclosure.
Possible Defenses in Dog Bite Cases
Dog owners in D.C. have several possible defenses in a dog bite case:
- Trespassing: The owner may not be liable if the person bitten was trespassing on the owner’s property at the time of the incident.
- Provocation: You cannot provoke a dog and expect to recover in a dog bite lawsuit. If the person bitten was provoking or abusing the dog before the incident, the owner is unlikely to liable.
- Assumption of risk: If the injured person knew the dog had dangerous tendencies and willingly took the risk of being bitten, this could be a defense for the owner.
Contributory Negligence and Dog Bite Lawsuits in D.C.
In the District of Columbia, dog bite claims and personal injury cases, in general, are governed by the principle of “contributory negligence.” This is one of the harshest negligence standards in the United States and can have a significant impact on the outcome of a dog bite case.
Under the doctrine of contributory negligence, if a victim is found to be even 1% at fault for their injuries, they are barred from recovering any damages. This principle is in contrast to comparative negligence, where a victim’s recovery is merely reduced by their percentage of fault. Most jurisdictions across the U.S. follow some form of comparative negligence, but the District of Columbia, along with a few states like Maryland and Virginia, still abide by the contributory negligence rule.
When it comes to dog bite cases, this contributory negligence rule can be invoked in several situations. For instance, if the victim was bitten after provoking the dog, or if they ignored clear warning signs of the dog’s aggressive behavior, they could be deemed to have contributed to their injury and thus be barred from recovering any damages.
There are some exceptions to the contributory negligence rule. The most significant of these is the “last clear chance” doctrine. This exception applies if the defendant had the last opportunity to avoid the harm but failed to do so. In a dog bite case, this could mean that even if the victim provoked the dog initially, the owner could have prevented the bite but failed to act.
Moreover, the doctrine of contributory negligence is generally not applied to children under a certain age (often around 5 years old). The law recognizes that young children may not fully understand the consequences of their actions, particularly around animals.
The Role of Homeowners or Renters Insurance
Many homeowners or renters’ insurance policies cover dog bite liability legal expenses up to the liability limits. If the claim exceeds the limit, the dog owner is personally responsible for all damages above that amount, including legal expenses. It’s essential for dog owners to review their insurance policy and understand the coverage it provides for dog bites.
The problem is there are so many renters in the District of Columbia. So virtually every homeowners’ insurance policy covers dog bites on and off the owner’s property, renters insurance is less common and may or may not cover dog bites depending on the policy.