Dog bite injuries can be very serious. Often, they can result in:
- Severe cuts or lacerations;
- Bite marks;
- Severe scarring;
- Broken bones;
- Ligament damage;
- Arm, shoulder, leg or knee injuries;
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI); and/or
- Emotional trauma
Florida law provides several theories of recovery against the owners of dogs who bite a victim. The theories are 1) Strict Liability; 2) Negligence; 3) Negligence Per Se; and 4) Intentional Tort. Each theory of liability requires its own unique set of facts and each has its own ramifications on a dog bite victim’s claim.
Strict Liability – Florida Statute 767.04.
Florida Statute imposes strict liability on dog owners for the injuries caused if their dog bites another person. This means that the owner of the dog is automatically liable for the dog bite regardless of the dangerousness of the dog or the caution taken by the owner. However, this law is not without its limitations.
One limitation provides the dog bite victim must be in a public place or lawfully on private property at the time of the incident to make use of this dog bite law. Unlawfully on private property may result in the inability to use the dog bite law to impose strict liability.
Another limitation on dog bite victims is that the law allows dog owners to argue the dog bite victim was negligent and that the victim’s own negligence was the cause of the bite. If a jury finds that the dog bite victim was negligent, the dog bite law reduces the dog owner’s liability by the percentage in which the dog bite victim was negligent.
Florida’s dog bite statute also provides that owners of dogs can limit the applicability of strict liability for dog bites where an owner of a dog displays an easily readable bad dog sign prominently on their premises. In such an instance, dog owners are no longer strictly liable for the damages arising from a dog bit to victims over 6 years old. Rather, liability attaches where the damages are caused by the owner’s negligent act or omission. This protection, however, can disappear shoulder an owner make statements contradictory to the bad dog sign.
In Noble v. York, 490 So.2d 29 (Fla. 1986), a victim was bit by a dog who was not secured, despite the owner’s statements to the contrary, and where a “Beware of Dog” sign was displayed. The Florida Supreme Court, found the display of a “Beware of Dog” sign did not provide an absolute defense because the owner advised the victim to ignore it as the dog was secured. The rationale for this holding was equitable estoppel – the theory that the representations of a party which reasonably lead another to believe them and rely upon them in the change of their position – applied to Florida’s dog bite law. Another case applied equitable estoppel to prevent an owner from using a bad sign where the owner previously described the dog to the victim as very old, arthritic and not a problem.
Negligence offers another theory in which to hold dog owners responsible for the injuries to a bite victim where the owner’s actions or omissions were not what a reasonable dog owner would have done. Under a theory of negligence, it is the dog bite victim who has the burden of proving the dog owner acted improperly whereas under the strict liability scenario above, the owner’s actions or inactions are irrelevant.
Negligence Per Se
Negligence per se applies where there is an accusation that a dog owner violated a statute, ordinance or law and such violation led to the victim being injured. The most common violation which implicates Negligence Per Se is violation of city or county “leash laws.” Various counties and cities around Florida have their own version of a leash law – a law that requires dogs to be kept on a leash. Where such an ordinance is in place and the owner of a dog was not complying with it at the time of the injury, the victim can argue that the owner was Negligence Per Se for violating a statute designed to protect the public from such types of injuries.
Some examples of leash laws are below, click on each to go to their respective leash law:
These types of cases typically arise where the owner of the dog provokes, incites and/or instructs the dog to bite the victim. These types of cases do not make up the majority of dog bite lawsuits.
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