It’s a rare farm that doesn’t have at least one dog around for one purpose or another. Maybe yours rides in the truck with you everywhere you go, or maybe he stays around the house and is there to welcome you home. Ours is a devoted duck hunter and the best at keeping my feet warm on a cool fall night. Any way you look at it, dogs really do meet all the qualifications to be man’s best friend.
There are other attributes, however, which can turn our best friend into a liability. Each time someone comes onto your property, you are assuming a certain amount of risk – if that person is injured, you may be liable. One risk is that your pet may not react as you expect and actually harm someone. This is why it is important to consider the laws in your state which cover unexpected and unfortunate situations such as dog bites.
Missouri and Arkansas have similar laws regarding dog bites. Each has adopted the “one bite rule.” This is an old rule which protects some dog owners and imposes liability on others. The concept of the rule is relatively straight forward: the dog owner is not held liable for the first injury (bite or otherwise) caused by the dog as long as the dog is not known to have dangerous propensities. If, however, you harbor a dog which is known to be dangerous, then you will be liable for those injuries caused by the dog. The concept behind this rule is that dogs are domestic animals which are usually harmless. If they do attack, it may be sudden and unexpected, but once your dog has bitten (or otherwise injured) someone, then you are put on notice: your dog is dangerous.
There is a gray area in figuring out when you “know” whether your dog is “dangerous.” Obviously if you keep a dog which you know has a history of attacking people, you won’t get the protections of the one bite rule (as you have already used your one free bite). They key to your liability lies in the fact that you know of this prior injury. But since these are rules formed by the courts, rather than statutes created by the legislatures, they are left open to a variety of interpretations based on the facts of any given case.
Some courts have found that a dog is “dangerous” given these facts: the dog bites people without provocation; the dog was trained to fight other dogs; the dog growls, barks and lunges at people; the dog is a guard dog. But in other situations the court has found that the dog is not dangerous based on particular facts such as chasing cars and motorcycles; chasing people but not biting them; the dog is a female who was nursing pups when it bit a person who came near the pups.
But there is more to it than merely having a dangerous dog, you must know that the dog is dangerous. Some facts may indicate both that the dog is dangerous and that you knew of its dangerous nature, such as the dog being kept as a guard dog or keeping the dog tied up. Other indications that the owner knew of the dog’s dangerous propensity include the dog being muzzled around people, people being kept away from the dog, the presence of a “Beware of Dog” sign or the owner bragging that the dog attacks people.
The point of the “one bite rule” is to provide some leniency for dog owners which are caught by surprise by such attacks and to ensure that owners which know of the dangers of their pet are held accountable for any harm caused. It is important to remember that even if your dog has never harmed anyone, you may be liable under different legal theories if an unfortunate event does occur. Hopefully, you won’t face a situation where your best friend causes harm and you won’t ever need to take advantage of your one free bite.
Shannon Mirus, of Farmington, Ark., is a licensed attorney in Arkansas. She is currently pursuing an advanced masters degree in agricultural law at the University of Arkansas.