Dogs are often described as man’s best friend, and with good reason. They can be great companions and are often thought of as members of the family. In Pennsylvania all dogs, even the family pet, are required by law to be properly controlled. Unfortunately if a dog is not properly controlled a dog attack or dog bite can occur and may result in tragic consequences. If you are a dog owner or if you or a loved one suffers an injury due to a dog attack, know your legal rights and responsibilities. A claim against a dog’s owner is permitted if an attack is unprovoked, and the dog has a vicious history or its owner has violated the Pennsylvania Dog Law. Importantly, liability attaches even if a dog has no prior history of biting another person or animal.
The Pennsylvania Dog Law requires that all dogs be registered and confined. Confinement must be within the owner’s premises, or through use of a firmly secured collar, chain or other device so that the dog cannot stray beyond the premises where it is being secured. When not on the owner’s property, dogs must be kept under the reasonable control of a person, unless actively engaged in lawful hunting, exhibition, or training activities.
Very specific restrictions apply for “dangerous dogs”. A dangerous dog is one that causes a severe injury or has a vicious history of attacking humans or other domestic animals. A severe injury is defined as an injury that results in broken bones, or disfiguring lacerations requiring multiple stitches or cosmetic surgery. Even where the attack doesn’t result in a bite, injuries of this nature can occur such as when the victim falls or is otherwise exposed to harm in trying to escape. A “dangerous dog” must be confined indoors, or if outdoors must be secured in an enclosed pen, or muzzled and under the physical control of a responsible person.
All dogs which bite or attack a human must be detained at a location approved by the state dog warden, animal control officer, or police. The dog must be isolated for a minimum of 10 days, and the investigating officer must inform the victim of the medical results of the dog’s detention. In addition to seeking compensation for injuries, the victim of a dog attack can file charges against the dog owner for harboring a dangerous dog. If a dog is declared dangerous, the owner must pay restitution to the victim, register the dog as dangerous, take steps to permanently identify the dog as dangerous through the use of a microchip, post adequate warnings, have the dog spayed or neutered, and maintain a bond or liability insurance.
If a dog bite occurs because the owner has violated the dog law or has failed to protect others from a dog known to be vicious, the owner is responsible even if it is the dog’s first bite incident. The law specifically requires the owner to pay all medical bills for dog bite injuries and other damages such as pain and suffering and disfigurement are also recoverable. Where the dog owner carries liability insurance such as a home owner’s policy, that coverage is available to pay damages for dog bite injuries.
Prevention is necessary to avoid dog bite injuries to unsuspecting victims and children. Dog owners can enjoy the companionship of man’s best friend without exposing others to injury. If you own a dog, follow the law and take appropriate steps to keep it from causing harm to others. If you or a loved one is the victim of dog bite, know your rights and take all legally available steps to hold the owner accountable and protect others form known dangerous dogs.