Each state has it’s own dog bite laws. Today’s blog will address the topic as to whether or not a Florida dog owner is automatically liable for injuries to others as a result of a dog bite. Although my primary area of practice is to represent persons due to injuries from automobile accidents, I have handled several dog bite cases over the years.
In order to address this topic, let’s give a legal definition to the word “automatically” in the context of liability. If a dog owner is automatically liable, this is what is called “strict liability,” or being “strictly liable” for the injuries to the person bitten by the owner’s dog, regardless if the owner’s actions were even careless or negligent. Florida has what might be called a “quasi strict liability” statute, and by that I mean that sometimes the dog owner is automatically financially liable for damages done to a person bitten. Incidentally, some states’ have strict liability only when a dog is known by the owner to have a history of “viciousness.” Florida does not require that the dog have such a history, a point that I am sure would not sit well with many dog owners.
The Florida Dog Bite Statute is 767.04. I’ll break down the key bullet points below on the subject of an owner’s legal liability when his or her dog bites someone, and I’ll use quotes to indicate when I am quoting directly from the statute:
1) If your dog bites someone, either on public property or private property (and private means “including the property of the owner of the dog”), the owner “is liable for damages suffered by persons bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owners’ knowledge of such viciousness.”
2) If the person bitten was at fault in some way for the dog biting him or her, then the owner is not responsible for that percentage of fault (which in theory could be as much as 100% at fault). For example, if someone is at your house and is intentionally agitating your dog (or even repeatedly trying to pick-up the dog when it is clear that the dog is in no mood), that could decrease the owner’s liability. This is known as the legal concept of “comparative fault,” and if a case is not settled out of court, a jury would determine the degree of fault that should be placed on the bitten person.
3) The statute later addresses how a dog owner can avoid liability. As written, the owner is not liable “…if at the time of any such injury the owner had displayed in a prominent place on his or her premises a sign easily readable including the words ‘Bad Dog’.” However, there are a couple of exceptions to this rule. First, the sign does not legally help the owner if the person bitten is “under the age of 6.” Secondly, the sign does not shield the owner if the bite happened due to active negligence on the part of said owner (e.g., the Bad Dog sign is on the owner’s fence, but the owner’s carelessness allowed the dog to escape).
These are the key points to Florida’s Dog Bite Statute.
Incidentally, someone recently asked me if she was “strictly liable” for damages that occurred when her dog bit another dog while she was taking him for a walk. The owner of the other dog was demanding payment for veterinarian bills. The answer is “NO, you are not strictly liable.” The statute clearly states that the liability is for damages suffered by “persons“ bitten,” and since a dog is not a person, it does not fall under the statute. That said, there could be liability based on other theories of negligence.