Articles & Updates

Understanding Dog Bite Negligence Laws: Navigating Common Law Liability Defenses on Property Claims

Apr 11, 2023 | Articles & Updates

Article by McCall Chafin, Esq.

Today, dog bite claims almost always involve a claim for statutory liability pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Dog Law Statute. However, when claims arise on the dog owner’s property, they have significant longstanding common law liability defenses that should not be ignored.

Pennsylvania does not impose absolute liability upon dog owners for injuries occasioned by their dogs. McCloud v. McLaughlin, 837 A.2d 541 (Pa.Super.2003). Proof of the owner’s negligence is required. Id., See also Rosenberry v. Evans, 48 A.3d 1255, 1258 (Pa. Super. 2012). In order to prevail on a claim of negligence, a plaintiff must establish that (1) the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the breach resulted in the plaintiff’s injury; and (4) the plaintiff suffered an actual loss or damage. Collins v. Phila. Suburban Dev. Corp., 179 A.3d 69, 73 (Pa. Super 2018).

To prevail in a negligence action against a dog owner in a dog bite case, a plaintiff must show that the owner knew or had reason to know of the animal’s display of dangerous propensity. Franciscus v. Sevdik, 135 A.3d 1092, 1094–95 (Pa. Super. 2016). Thus, evidence must be presented to establish (1) the dog displays vicious tendencies; (2) the animal’s owner has reason to know or actually knows that the animal has those dangerous propensities; and (3) the owner of the animal failed to act prudently in response to those vicious or dangerous propensities. Id, See also Deardorff v. Burger, 414 Pa.Super. 45, 606 A.2d 489, 492 (1992) (holding that “mere awareness and ownership of a vicious animal does not per se expose one to liability for injuries inflicted absent a failure on the part of the owner to take proper precautions to preclude that viciousness from exhibiting itself.”).

A plaintiff must first establish the dog had vicious tendencies or dangerous propensities. A dangerous propensity includes “a propensity or tendency of an animal to do any act that might endanger the safety of the person and property of others in a given situation.” Groner v. Hedrick, 403 Pa. 148, 169 A.2d 302, 303 (1961) (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 518(1)).

Facts that may support a finding of dangerous propensities include behaviors like lunging at strangers, barking at strangers, and nipping. A defendant should also be aware that these behaviors done in a playful sense may also support dangerous propensities when a dog is a larger breed. Groner v. Hedrick, 403 Pa. at 303. The Groner Court recognized a large dog that jumps on people may be as dangerous as a vicious one due to its ability to endanger a person stating, “[T]he law makes no distinction between an animal dangerous from viciousness and one merely mischievous or dangerous from playfulness,” and the animal’s motivation or “the mood in which it inflicts harm is immaterial.” Id.

When a dog is found to have dangerous propensities, a defendant must establish they exercised reasonable care to secure the dog to prevent it from injuring another. Franciscus v. Sevdik, 135 A.3d at 1094-95.

Reasonable care to secure the dog is a question left to the jury. See Mangino v. Cowher, 2010 WL 3923581 (Pa. Com. Pl. June 11, 2010) (finding the jury could find evidence of an invisible fence was not sufficient to secure the dog at issue) and Hughes v. Badaracco-Apolito, 2016 WL 775187, at *11 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 29, 2016) (“a question regarding that reasonableness of Badaracco-Apolito’s actions or inactions as to the control of her dogs based on the evidence of record, this determination is best left to the jury”).

In evaluating whether reasonable care was exercised, compliance with statutory requirements may also be examined, particularly in incidents occurring outside the dog owner’s premises.  Deardorff, 414 Pa. Super. at 52. If a violation of the statutory requirements occurred, a jury must then find the violation was a substantial factor in bringing about the injuries sustained. Id., see also Mangino v. Cowher, 2010 WL 3923581 (Pa. Com. Pl. June 11, 2010). In dog bite cases, the applicable statutory requirements are found in Pennsylvania’s Dog Law which imposes a duty on an owner of a dog to keep their dog either confined, firmly secured, or under their reasonable control at all times. 3 P.S § 459-305. The Dog Law also imposes liability if the owner had knowledge of the animal’s dangerous propensities and failed to take proper steps to prevent the animal from harming people. 3 P.S. § 459-502-A.

Ultimately the question of whether a defendant discharged their duty to prevent harm is left to the jury. Precautions such as a collar and leash or a muzzle on the dog’s mouth are examples of steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of harm. However, the extent of the precautions taken is dependent on the underlying facts surrounding the dog’s dangerous propensities. Exclusive focus on the Dog Law improperly limits the defenses available to dog owners.