Suing the dog owner?

You often see on the news that someone gets bit by a dog and seriously wounded. It seems like in many of these situations some liability may exist for the owner of the dog. However, as an owner of a dog myself, it doesn’t seem fair that the owner should automatically be responsible for the dog’s actions. Under what circumstances can the owner of a dog be sued?

This is a question perhaps contemplated by many dog owners. The prospect of going on a walk and your dog unexpectedly yanking the leash out of your hand and suddenly running wild and biting another person raises concern.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that around 5 million people are bitten by dogs every year with almost a million of those bites requiring medical attention. These furry companions are not always man’s best friend.

Rules regarding liability for dog bites, however, are actually quite sensible. The basic applicable legal theory is negligence. Despite popular myth, Kansas law does not impose strict liability on a dog owner for an injury caused by the owner’s domesticated pet. The overarching consideration is the foreseeability on the part of the owner regarding the animal’s propensity to cause injury.

Although case law concerning claims against dog owners for attacks is scant, a few reported cases do deal with this subject. The 1941 Kansas Supreme Court case of McComas v. Sanders is the hallmark case in this area.

In McComas, the court determined that the owner of a domestic animal not typically vicious is not liable for injuries caused by the animal if it is in a place where it has a right to be, unless the owner has knowledge of prior aggressive tendencies of the animal. Further, the owner must take notice of the characteristics of the class of animal and ensure that opportunity is not afforded to cause injury.

A later Kansas Supreme Court case expanded on these principles and determined that an owner is “required to realize that even ordinarily gentle animals are likely to be dangerous under particular circumstances and to exercise care to prevent foreseeable harm.”

A later Kansas Court of Appeals decision applied this concept where a police officer responded to a call about a wounded dog in front of a convenience store. The officer took the dog to a veterinarian and, while lifting the dog, agitated the dog’s injury. The dog responded by severely biting the officer.
The court determined that the owner could properly be found liable because it was foreseeable that a dog allowed to wander into unfamiliar parts of a city could become vicious around strangers—especially in response to pain.

Several cases consider situations where a dog merely scared an individual and the individual’s reaction resulted in injuries. For example, liability was imposed on an owner of a dog named Peanut where Peanut jumped out of the owner’s yard and caused a bicyclist to crash and sustain multiple injuries where it was widely known that the dog would exhibit menacing behavior to anyone that passed by the owner’s house.

With the above in mind, there is no need to stop taking your dog on a walk for fear that your dog will injure someone and pose a liability problem for you unless you have a reasonable basis for believing that this outcome could result. Dogs are wonderful, loving companions and, with reasonable precautions, pet owners can both control their dogs and simultaneously minimize the chance of these furry friends causing injuries that result in liability concerns.