Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Feb 24, 2020

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It is estimated that up to 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the United States every year. Notwithstanding that large number of injuries, many victims don’t really understand how dog bite laws affect them – especially laws like the “first bite” or “one bite” rule.

Strict liability vs. “First Bite” Laws

There are two basic types of dog bite statutes in the United States, according to Steve Recordon, a California attorney with nearly 30 years of experience whose practice represents individuals who have been injured by dog bites. In a recent interview, he provided information on each:

You have the rule followed in California and more than half the states in the U.S., which is a strict liability statute that means if your dog bites somebody, you’re responsible. Then you have the other states that don’t follow the strict liability statutes. Those states will allow one bite, or the ‘first’ bite, before the dog owner is responsible for the injuries.

Recordon says that the theory behind the latter is that, until the owner has knowledge of the dangerous propensity of the dog, they’re not held responsible. He provided the following example:

Let’s say that you have a dog that’s normally very docile and you reside in a state that doesn’t have a strict liability statute. You have no reason to believe that your dog would ever bite or scare anybody and then, all of the sudden, they do. You had no way of knowing that. You had no knowledge of that dangerous propensity because this is a domesticated pet, not a wild, animal. So, in those states, the first bite is ‘free’.

Overcoming first bite situations

More and more states are doing away with one bite, or first bite, rules and are following the California strict liability rules saying that if you maintain a dog, you’re going to be responsible for the first bite. While there are still a number of states that follow the first bite rule, Recordon told us that it is possible to overcome that if you can show that the owner had knowledge that it was foreseeable to them that the dog could bite somebody. He explained:

What an attorney would do is contact neighbors and other people in the neighborhood to determine whether or not that dog had shown aggressive behavior. If enough people can say that they have seen that dog show aggressive behavior, then even if the owner says that they’ve never seen this dog do anything wrong, you have witnesses to counteract the owner’s position. So now, you can impute the liability or the knowledge of the animal’s aggressiveness to that owner and overcome the one bite rule.

Civil and criminal liability may apply

Dog bite victims may be able to hold a dog’s owner or guardian to both civil and criminal liability. Recordon explained, “In some states, such as California, you’ll have both civil and criminal liability. What civil liability means is that if your dog bites someone, you’re going to have to pay money. Civil equates to money. What criminal liability means is that if your dog bites someone and injures them, you could end up being prosecuted under some of our criminal statutes – and end up going to jail.”

“One of the cases that a lot of people are familiar with when it comes to criminal statutes is the Diane Whipple case out of San Francisco that occurred about four or five years ago. Whipple was living in an apartment building where Presa Canario dogs were being bred to fight. They attacked and killed her in the apartment building. The dog owners were prosecuted, convicted and served time in jail as a result.”

If you’ve been injured due to a dog bite, contact an attorney whose practice focuses in this area of law to discuss your situation. Consultations are free, without obligation and are strictly confidential.