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Dogs that Bite—Who’s Responsible?

You see the cutest dog at the park and you can’t resist saying hi. The owner smiles as you walk up to the dog and gingerly put your hand out to pet his fluffy little head. Without warning, the dog snaps at you and sinks his teeth into your hand. The owner is horrified, declaring that Fido has never done anything like that before! Who’s responsible for the injuries—you or the dog owner?

Missouri law regarding dog bites is set out in Missouri Revised Statutes, section 273.036, which provides that dog owners are subject to “strict liability.”

What is Strict Liability?

In Missouri, if you are bitten by a dog either in a public area or on private property, the dog owner can be held responsible for your injuries, even if the dog has no history of aggression or has never bitten before. This is called strict liability.  It differs from negligence in that it is not necessary to prove that a dog owner recognized the need to protect others from the dog, i.e., that the dog had aggressive tendencies. With strict liability, the past history of the dog doesn’t matter. There are, however, some important exceptions to the imposition of liability.

Provoked Attack

For strict liability to apply, the attack has to have been unprovoked. In other words, if you harass or threaten a dog (or its owner), and you are bitten, you could be held responsible, at least in part, for the bite. Depending on the circumstances, but the amount of the owner’s responsibility may be reduced by the percentage of responsibility you hold in instigating the bite.

Trespassers Upon Premises

If you enter another’s property without permission, you are considered a trespasser. Consequently, if you are bitten while trespassing on another’s property, strict liability will generally not apply. This can apply even if you are a solicitor or a sales person, unless the homeowner invites you onto the property.

Others in Control of the Dog

If another is in control of someone’s dog when a bite occurs, that person may be partially or even solely responsible, depending upon the circumstances. For instance, if your neighbor is dog-sitting someone’s poodle. While having coffee with your neighbor, your 7-year-old nephew (who was invited to come with you), is bitten. Your neighbor may be responsible, in whole or in part, especially if she was warned that the dog did not do well with children, and she failed to mention that to you.

Additional Considerations

Keep in mind that, in Missouri, if a dog has a past history of aggression and the dog owner is aware of that history, aside from civil liability, the owner may also be subject to criminal penalties if they fail to protect others from the dog.

No matter what the circumstances, if you are the victim of a dog bite, you should schedule a consult with a personal injury attorney experienced in such matters in order to explore your options.

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