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Dog Ownership and Strict Liability: What You Should Know

Categories: Personal Injury Resources

By Arthur D. Leritz. Posted on .

At some point in your life, you’ve probably either owned a dog or had a dog in your family.   You love them, feed them, pamper them, and buy them whatever they need, but you probably have not thought about what could be the most important aspects of owning a dog – the potential liability a dog bite could bring and the injuries it can cause.

In the State of Washington, if you own a dog and it bites someone, you are strictly liable.  That means that the injured party does not need to establish any negligence on your part – simple ownership is enough.  In Washington State, an injured party needs to establish the following elements to make a claim against the dog owner under the strict liability rule:

  1. That the defendant is the owner of the dog;
  2. That the dog bit you; and
  3. That you were in or on a public place or lawfully in or on a private place including the property of the owner of the dog when bitten.[1]

This strict liability applies regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.[2]  In other words, there is no “first bite free” under the law.  This strict liability does not apply in all dog bite situations.  For example, proof of provocation of the attack by the injured person is a complete defense to an action for damages.[3]  Also, strict liability does not extend to the landlord of the dog owner while the dog is on a rented or leased property.[4]

Dog bites and kids:

Especially alarming are the statistics for dog bites to young children.  According to the CDC:

  •  50% of dog attacks involved children under 12 years old.
  • 82% of dog bites treated in the emergency room involved children under 15 years old.
  • 70% of dog-bite fatalities occurred among children under 10 years old.
  • Bite rates are dramatically higher among children who are 5 to 9 years old.
  • Unsupervised newborns were 370 times more likely than an adult to be killed by a dog.
  • 65% of bites among children occur to the head and neck.
  • Boys under the age of 15 years old are bitten more often than girls of the same age.[5]

What you can do:

There is no way to guarantee your dog will never bite someone, but there are things you can and should do to decrease the risk.  For example:

  • Spay or neuter your dog to reduce aggressive tendencies.
  • Properly train and socialize your dog, including teaching the dog submissive behaviors.
  • Never leave infants or young children alone with a dog –even one they know, as children who are not properly educated can put themselves in danger unknowingly.
  • Don’t chain up your dog.  Dogs who are chained up are 2.8 times more likely to bite due to increased agitation, stress and a perceived vulnerability.[6]  Have a secure fence with a lockable gate installed instead.

Educate your kids:

Since kids tend to be the biggest risk group and since their immune systems are not as fully developed as an adult’s immune system, proper education is vital to reduce the risk of a child getting bitten.  If you have small children, the following tips may help to reduce the risk of a dog bite:

  • Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
  • Remain motionless when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
  • Do not run from a dog or scream.  If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still.
  • Avoid direct eye contact with an unfamiliar dog.
  • Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.
  • Do not pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.
  • If bitten, immediately report the bite to an adult regardless of the circumstances leading up to the bite.

If you have been injured by a dog or have any questions concerning the law or your rights and duties under the law, the attorneys at Adler Giersch, PS are ready and willing to assist you.



[1] RCW 16.08.040.

[2] RCW 16.08.040.

[3] RCW 16.08.060.

[4] Frobig v. Gordon, 124 Wn.2d 732, 881 P.2d 226 (1994).

[5] Centers for Disease Control (2003).  Nonfatal dog bite-related injuries treated in hospital emergency departments – US 2001.  MMWR, 52(26), 605-610.

[6] Centers for Disease Control (2003).  Nonfatal dog bite-related injuries treated in hospital emergency departments – US 2001.  MMWR, 52(26), 605-610.

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