The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control estimates that there are over 4.5 million dog bites in the United States every year. Insurance company estimates indicate that dog bites cost insurance companies over $400 million in clams each year. If you own a dangerous domesticated animal you may be strictly liable if that animal causes injury to a person or even another animal. Strict liability makes a person legally responsible for the damage and loss caused by his or her acts and omissions regardless of fault. A domesticated animal is any animal (i.e. dog, cat, pig, horse, etc.) that is by custom devoted to the service of mankind at the time and place it is kept.
To prove a cause of action for injury by a dangerous domesticated animal, the plaintiff must show that:
1. The defendant owned or possessed the animal;
2. The animal had dangerous propensities abnormal to its class;
3. The defendant knew or had reason to know that the animal had dangerous propensities; and 4. The animal’s dangerous propensities were a producing cause of the plaintiff’s injury.
The defendant can be held liable if he owned, kept or harbored the animal or if he owned or possessed the premises where the animal was kept. Even if the animal is owned by some one else, person who owns or controls the premises where a dangerous animal is kept that can be held liable if that person allowed the animal to be on the premises. For example, a landlord can be held liable for a dangerous animal owned by a tenant if the landlord had knowledge and is in control of the premises were the animal is kept.
To establish that the animal had abnormally dangerous propensities, the plaintiff must show that the animal’s vicious or dangerous tendencies were not normal for that class of animal. An animal’s class is not necessarily limited to a specific breed of the animal. One Texas court has held that a Weimaraner should be compared to the dangerous tendencies of all dogs, not just other Weimaraners. See Dunnings v. Castro, 881 S.W.2d. 559 (Tex. App. – Houston [1st] 1994).
A defendant has a reason to know an animal has dangerous propensities if he has information from which a reasonable person would infer that the animal is dangerous. However, whether a defendant knew or had reason to know of the animal’s dangerous propensities depends on the facts. Typically, the defendant must acknowledge to third parties that the animal is dangerous. If the animal is owned by another person but kept on the defendant’s premises, the plaintiff must still prove that the defendant had knowledge of the animal’s dangerous propensities.
Unlike ordinary negligence which requires proof that the negligent act was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury, strict liability for dangerous animals only requires a showing of producing cause. To prove that the animal’s dangerous propensities were a producing cause of the injury, the plaintiff only must show the animal’s dangerous propensities contributed to the plaintiff’s injuries.
The remedies available in a dangerous animal case include actual damages, punitive damages, court costs and interest. However, under Chapter 822 of the Texas Health and Safety Code if a dog attacks a person and causes serious bodily injury, a court may order the dog seized, and after a hearing, can order the animal to be destroyed. This statute is limited in application only to dogs. A dangerous dog under the act is one that either makes an unprovoked attack on a person that causes serious bodily injury or commits an unprovoked act that causes a person to reasonably believe that the dog will attack and cause bodily injury.
One defense to strict liability for dangerous animals is assumption of the risk. This defense may bar a plaintiff’s recovery if he voluntarily exposes himself to a danger that he knew about and fully appreciated. However, this defense does not apply to a plaintiff who does not understand the risk because of age or lack of information, experience, intelligence or judgment. Also, it is not a defense that the animal was chained because when the plaintiff has the right to be on the premises, the owner must ensure that the animal does not cause harm to the plaintiff. The statute of limitations for claims arising from a dangerous domesticated animal is two years.
At The Law Office of Stephen O’Rear we help people who have been injured by dangerous animals.