Dog Bite Laws
There are about 90 million dogs living in US households, and while life threatening attacks are rare, it is not uncommon for a dog’s bite to result in significant injuries — about 4.5 million dog bites injure humans every year, according to an article published in March, 2020 by the Insurance Information Institute (“III”). They also report that in 2019, the insurance industry paid out almost $800 million due to dog bites and attacks.
Last year alone, Pennsylvanians reported 807 dog bite claims to insurance providers. While the value of each claim varies widely based on facts and circumstances, the average amount paid to policyholders was $35,562.
Dog owners have an obligation to make sure that their pets don’t pose a danger to any of their human neighbors. In Pennsylvania, that obligation is recognized as a legal duty.
Pennsylvania’s “Dog Law” is a collection of rules and responsibilities that dog owners owe to their communities. 3 P.S. § 459. The law anticipates a procedural course of action for victims of bites and attacks, and it lays out the steps that injured victims should take if they need financial compensation for medical bills, property damage, or other harms that result from the bite or attack.Liability
Here’s what the law requires of dog owners:
3 P.S. § 459-305. Confinement and Housing of Dogs…
It shall be unlawful for the owner or keeper of any dog to fail to keep at all times the dog in any of the following manners:
- confined within the premises of the owner;
- firmly secured by means of a collar and chain or other device so that it cannot stray beyond the premises on which it is secured; or
- under the reasonable control of some person, or when engaged in lawful hunting, exhibition, performance events or field training.
In short, this means that dog owners must keep their dog confined to their property. The dog must either be secured physically with a chain or a collar, or be kept in control of a person who is responsible for the dog.
This statute guides Pennsylvania Courts decision-making in cases where dogs have left their owner’s property and bitten or attacked other people. Failure to keep the dog secured and under control constitutes negligence, per se.
In one landmark case, Miller v. Hurst, a dog ran loose and bit a person nearby. When the victim sued the owner for damages sustain in the attack, the Court needed to decide if the owner was negligent in his supervision of the dog. So, the Court looked to the rule provided in 3 P.S. § 459-305. According to the law, the dog’s owner was responsible for keeping the dog in his control, and since he failed to do so without any justifying excuse, he was found to be liable for the dog’s actions, and further liable for paying the cost of the victim’s medical damages. Miller v. Hurst, 302 Pa. Super. 235, 448 A.2d 614 (1982)
The result of the Miller case was far reaching: The state’s former policy, known as the “one bite rule,” was effectively abolished thereafter. Since then, the law has amended and revisited by the courts numerous times, but today, the law on dog bite liability in Pennsylvania is clear:
“Any cost to the victim for medical treatment resulting from an attacking or biting dog must be paid fully by the owner or keeper of the dog.
Dog owners whose pets cause injuries may be required by a court to cover the cost of thousands of dollars in unexpected medical bills.Homeowners & Renters Insurance
Thankfully, most homeowners insurance policies, and even most renters insurance policies, will cover the damages resulting from harm inflicted by the policyholder’s dog. These policies also tend to include coverage for the legal costs you incur in the process of handling the claim.
It’s extremely important to read and understand what your policy is covering before you purchase it. If you’re a dog owner, or if you think you might own one in the future, ask your agent to make sure that the policy will cover your dog — some companies exclude liability coverage for injuries caused by certain dog breeds, most often Pit Bulls, Dobermans, German Shepherds, and Rottweilers. Also, importantly, homeowners and renters insurance doesn’t limit coverage to injuries that your dog inflicts while on your own property. (or rental).Tying it Together
If you’re injured by a dog, you can and should file a complaint with a magisterial district judge, and request that the owner or keeper of the a dog be charged with harboring a dangerous dog. Most often, the dog’s owner won’t have the financial means to immediately or completely pay for the cost of medical damages. Instead, those damages will be paid for out of the dog owner’s homeowners insurance policy. In order to trigger coverage under the policy, it may be required that a court make a legal determination that your injuries resulted from the dog owner’s negligence. The court would have to find that failure to keep that dog under their control, as required by 3 P.S. § 459-305, above. Alternatively, a court’s determination that the dog’s owner is guilty of harboring a dangerous dog, in violation of 3 P.S. § 459-502-A. Such a determination may also trigger coverage:
The owner or keeper of the dog shall be guilty of the summary offense of harboring a dangerous dog if the magisterial district judge finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the following elements of the offense have been proven:
- The dog has done any of the following:
- Inflicted severe injury on a human being without provocation on public or private property.
- Killed or inflicted severe injury on a domestic animal, dog or cat without provocation while off the owner's property.
- Attacked a human being without provocation.
- Been used in the commission of a crime.
- The dog has either or both of the following:
- A history of attacking human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation.
- A propensity to attack human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation. A propensity to attack may be proven by a single incident of the conduct described in paragraph (1)(i), (ii), (iii) or (iv).
- The defendant is the owner or keeper of the dog.
A “Severe” injury is “any physical injury that results in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations requiring multiple sutures or cosmetic surgery.” When a victim’s injuries are judged to constitute this level of severity, compensation for things like anxiety, disfigurement, and loss of income (among many other damages) may become available to that victim. 3 P.S. § 459-102
Notably, the definition of “Owner” under PA Dog Law includes any individual who has the dog in his or her care. This means that a dog’s temporary “keeper” cab be also held liable if the dog injures another person. 3 P.S. § 459-102