The Common Law
Neighbor Law -- Dog Issues
It depends. Unlike some states, Texas does not have a "dog bite statute" that always makes an owner legally responsible for damages caused by their dogs' bites. Nevertheless, there are situations when a dog owner will be responsible for damages caused by a dog bite.
Under Texas law, an owner will not be responsible for damages the dog causes unless the dog is dangerous and the owner knows of the dog's dangerous tendencies. Texas law defines "dangerous dogs" as those that commit unprovoked acts outside of their normal enclosure which would cause a reasonable person to believe that the dog could attack and cause bodily injury again. Previous bites, attacks, or other displays of vicious tendencies are the most common ways that an owner should know their dog is dangerous. The owner of a dangerous dog must take reasonable steps to protect others from the dog.
From a practical standpoint, this means that whether you would be legally responsible for your dog depends on the dog. If your dog were so vicious it makes a rabid rotweiller look like the perfect family pet, you would almost certainly be liable for any damages caused by its bites (even the first bite). Alternatively, if your dog is the veritable Lassie -- friendly and with no history of hostile or aggressive behavior -- you may not be responsible the first time it bites someone because you had no reason to know it was dangerous. But at that point, if you failed to take reasonable steps to protect others, you could be responsible for any future bites because the first bite put you on notice that your dog has vicious tendencies.
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Marrs, Ellis & Hodge LLP, www.jmehlaw.com.
The material in this column is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute, nor is it a substitute for, legal advice. For advice on your specific facts and circumstances, consult a licensed attorney. You may wish to contact the Lawyer Referral Service of Central Texas, a non-profit public service of the Austin Bar Association, at 512-472-8303 or www.austinlrs.com.