The Common Law

Every dog gets one bite?

Every Dog Gets One Bite?

I'm a first-time dog owner. My friend recently told me that I would have to pay for all damages my dog causes if he ever bites someone. Is this right?

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.

As a general rule, 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 that 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 or not you would be legally responsible for your dog depends on the dog. If your dog were so vicious that it made a rabid rottweiler 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.

There are other circumstances when a dog owner can be legally liable for a dog bite – such as the owner's negligence or failure to comply with a leash law – even if it's the dog's first bite. Read next week's "Common Law" column for more information on dog owner liability.

Please submit column suggestions, questions, and comments to thecommonlaw@austinchronicle.com. Submission of potential topics does not create an attorney-client relationship, and any information submitted is subject to being included in future columns.

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.

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