“Who let the dogs out? Woof! Woof! Woof!” – Liability Related to Man’s Best Friend

As much as we love them, rely on them, or work with them, companion animals like dogs are still considered “property” under Ohio law. As much as this pains me as a dedicated animal lover, that’s the law. And, there is significant legal responsibility that goes with that animal/property. The humans considered the “owners, keepers or harborers” of a dog in Ohio are subject to strict liability for injury, death or loss to person or property caused by the dog.  Ohio Revised Code §955.28. Here’s a brief overview of this subject.

The term “owner” is self-explanatory. If it’s your dog, you are subject to potential liability under the statute.  A “keeper” of a dog has been defined as a person who is a caretaker of the dog, for example, someone dog-sitting or a roommate.  A “harborer” is the owner of property who knows of and agreed to the dog’s residence on the property, such as a landlord.  So, the inclusion of the last two categories in the statute means it doesn’t even have to be your dog for potential strict liability to exist on your part for an injury caused by the dog.  And, while mentioning it, what is “strict liability”?  That means that there is no need to prove any breach of reasonable care on your part – if it is proved the dog caused the injury, you will be responsible for the resulting damages proven.

That is, unless one of the few defenses identified in the statute apply. What are those defenses?  If the person injured was committing or attempting to commit a criminal trespass or other criminal offense (other than a minor misdemeanor) on the property of the dog’s owner, keeper or harborer, then no liability will exist on the part of the dog’s human.  Similarly, if a person is injured while committing or attempting to commit a criminal offense (other than a minor misdemeanor) against any person, then the dog’s owner, keeper or harborer would not be liable for that injury. Also and importantly, if a person was “teasing, tormenting or abusing” the dog on the property of the owner, keeper or harborer, then no liability will exist. This is often an issue that requires close investigation, for example, when a child is bitten.

The liability for injury caused by the dog is not limited to bites or scratches from the dog, it also extends to indirect injuries. For example, if a dog chases, but does not bite or scratch, a person off of the dog’s home property, and that causes the person to fall and injure him or herself, the dog’s human could be held liable.  Or, if a dog is loose in the road and car swerves to miss it and has an accident as a result, the dog’s owner, keeper or harborer again could be liable under the statute.

As a legal matter, in addition to the strict liability under the statute discussed above, a person can still file a negligence claim for a dog-related injury, at their option. If the injury is alleged to result from the negligence of a dog’s owner in controlling, warning about or protecting from the dog, the injured person would have to prove, among other things, that the injury was foreseeable, or, in other words, that the owner knew or had some reason to know that the dog was likely to cause injury, such as that the owner knew the dog had bitten before in a similar situation.  In some instances, this can also permit a recovery of punitive damages if the requisite elements are proven.

The author, Erin B. Moore, Esquire, is an animal lover and a shareholder at Green & Green, Lawyers whose practice includes defending animal liability issues, including the use of police K-9s. If you have questions in these areas, Green & Green has the experience and skill to assist.