Wednesday, February 22, 2012

No "One Free Bite" in Pennsylvania

Liability for dog bites in Pittsburgh seemed straightforward to me before I went to law school. I thought that if a dog bit someone the owner was only responsible if the dog had previously bit someone.  Please read my other PA Dog Law posts:  Law for Dangerous Dog Owners and Dog Bite Law in PA.

The dog bite law in Pennsylvania, however, based in common law- law that is derived from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes- holds that a dog owner is not responsible for a dog bite unless he/she knew or had reason to know of the doc's vicious propensity. Andrews v. Smith, 324 PA. 455 (1936). The Andrews Court set forth two important points for dangerous dog cases:

1. Animals like dogs are not wild animals. They are domesticated animals. Because of this owners are not responsible for a vicious act committed by a dog unless the owner knew that the dog was likely to break away from its domesticated tendencies and become vicious.

2. It is unfair to hold dog owners, animals that are normally harmless, responsible for a vicious act like a dog bite, unless the owner was on notice that the animal was more likely to act in a vicious way. Knowledge of the dangerous character of a dog is foresight of the way in which the dog will act. Dogs, which the law considers to be generally harmless, that act in a way that could only have been foreseen by a specialist do not impart liability on their owners who had no warning of the dogs likelihood to attack.

So this creates a fairly high standard for people injured by dogs to overcome in seeking to hold the owner liable. The Pennsylvania courts, however, have held that the "one free bite rule" is NOT a permitted defense in Pennsylvania dog bite lawsuits. That is, PA courts have held that where a domesticated dog has a known "vicious or ferocious propensity" the "one free bite rule" does not apply. Id. The Pennsylvania Superior Court in Deardorff v. Burger, 606 A.2d (Pa. Super. 1992) held that "as soon as the owner knows or has reason to believe that the animal is likely to do mischief, he must take care of him; it makes no difference whether this ground of suspicion arises from one act or from repeated acts. The only restriction is that the act done must be such as to furnish a reasonable inference that the animal is likely to commit an act of the kind complained of."

Dog owners must then be on alert for instances for when their dog lunged at anotehr person or dog with so much as a growl. Because if the dog later injures someone, even if it had never bitten anyone before, the dog owner may still be found to have had knowledge that the dog could have acted the way it ultimately did. Dog bite cases often hinge on the recollections of witnesses who had previously experienced or witnessed the dog act in a ferocious manner previously.

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