Are You Liable If Your Dog Bites Someone?

In several areas of personal injury law, more generally under the category of tort law, Wisconsin differs from many other states.  A prime example is the general rule of strict liability for dog bites.

Wisconsin Statute section 174.02 states “the owner of a dog is liable for the full amount of damages caused by the dog injuring or causing injury to a person, domestic animal or property.”

If the owner of the dog has had notice that the dog has previously bitten someone or caused damage, they can be liable for 2 times the amount of damages caused.  The dog owner can also be cited by local authorities and depending on the circumstances fined between $50.00 and $1,000.00.

That can be a steep price to pay for man's best friend and a strong public policy statement by the State Legislature.

In many other states, owners are liable only if found negligent in some manner or if the dog is of a particular variety, or the owner is aware of prior aggressive behavior.

There are some narrow exceptions to the strict liability rule in Wisconsin, such as public policy considerations in what is called the "firefighters rule."  This rule can sometimes limit liability of a property owner for injuries suffered by a trained rescue worker during the course of their trained occupation.  The exceptions are neither absolute nor predetermined, but depend on a case by case analysis.

But beyond the few narrow exceptions, why such a strong public policy decision by the legislators who drafted section 174.02?  It is part of legal reasoning called "shifting of burdens."  It is a choice to place the burden of damage caused by a dog purely on the dog owner.  In other words, the law says if you choose to own a dog, you will be held responsible for all the normal consequences that reasonably comes with dog ownership.  Since dogs are on occasion known to bite or cause property damage, the owner should be liable by virtue of choosing to own such an animal.

By shifting the burden to the dog owner and making the question of who is responsible clear, this law potentially helps reduce lawsuits and ensure the quick compensation of injured parties.  No fighting over the dog's past or the actions of the owner, responsibility is usually predetermined.  

The only question usually left is how much, meaning how much are the damages worth.  In the case of a bite, there are many considerations.  How bad was the bite, how long was the attack, what treatment was needed, was surgery needed, how much are the medical bills, were there psychological injuries, and were the physical injuries permanent or did they leave permanent scaring?

These questions are usually resolved between the dog owner's insurance company and the injured party, although in many cases litigation still results.

Daniel Kaminsky's Dog BuddyI am a pet owner and have a dog, a Black Labrador Retriever named Buddy.  I am fortunate that he has great temperament and has never shown signs of aggression towards people generally.  But often that is the case with first time bites.  I have been told that dogs are pack animals and their owners are often considered the leader of the pack.  A pack animal can be very territorial and protective, and even a gentle dog may act aggressively if it feels members of its pack are being threatened.  Even Buddy gets his hackles up and puts on a good show when an unexpected stranger nears the house.  

The law has certainly not caused people to refrain from owning dogs, but all dog owners should be aware of their potential responsibility for damages, follow all leash laws, and keep this in mind when training and when exposing your dog to others.