When Can I Sue For A Dog Bite?

You likely landed on this blog because you’ve either been bitten by someone’s dog, are nervous you might be bitten by someone’s dog, or you’re an owner looking to protect yourself. Regardless of where you’re coming from, we want to help you understand how Alabama’s dog bite laws work and when you can actually take action against the dog’s owner. After all, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year and more than 800,000 of those require medical attention.

It’s not as simple as “my neighbor’s dog bit me and now I want compensation.” Not every bite will qualify because state law requires certain circumstances to be present, and proving that the owner failed to follow the law can be tricky. Let’s explore when you can and can’t file a lawsuit.

You can’t be at fault

This is important to address right away. If you are bit by someone’s dog as a result of your actions then you will have a hard time getting a lawsuit off the ground. Note the full text of Alabama Code 3-1-3:

“When any person owns or keeps a vicious or dangerous animal of any kind and, as a result of his careless management of the same or his allowing the same to go at liberty, and another person, without fault on his part, is injured thereby, such owner or keeper shall be liable in damages for such injury.”

The “without fault on his part” portion is an important aspect. You may not have recourse if you were playing too rough with the dog, trespassing, attempting to commit a crime, harming the dog’s owner or another person, or similar actions that would have prevented you from being bitten in the first place.

You can sue the owner if the dog is “vicious or dangerous”

The code above notes that the animal must be “vicious or dangerous,” but that’s a relatively vague definition. So, how does the state define those terms? The animal must be:

  • Any animal determined by the municipal court to be a vicious animal.
  • Any animal which, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner, inflicts severe injury on or kills a human being.
  • Any animal previously determined to be and currently listed as a potentially dangerous animal, which, after its owner or keeper has been notified of this determination, continues the behavior described in the definition of “potentially dangerous dog” hereinabove.
  • Any animal owned or harbored primarily or in part for the purpose of animal fighting or any dog trained for dog fighting.

Many people see “vicious and dangerous” and think of specific breeds, but there’s no limitation on the breed in the definition – instead, it’s about the actual action and potential damage the animal inflicts.

The owner must be proven to be negligent or knowledgeable about the dog’s habits

If you’re just hanging around someone else and their dog viciously bites you at no fault of your own, you should have an easy case… right? Well, not quite.

Due to the ruling in Durden v. Barnett, 7 Ala. 169 all the way back in 1844, precedent requires that the owner had previous knowledge of the dog’s potential to bite others. Some owners admit to this without even realizing it, saying things like “I’m sorry, we’re working on that with her” or “not again!” Pay attention to these cues when you’re hurt by someone’s animal.

Now, if the owner did not know but was blatantly negligent in the circumstances surrounding the bite then you may have a case. For instance, if the dog was acting aggressively and the owner refused to address it or stop it before the bite occurred then this would be considered negligence. This precedent was also established in the above case.

Law enforcement and certain service animals are exempt

While organizations and corporations can actually be held liable as the owner of the dog, law enforcement and people who are using the dog for a disability generally cannot be held liable. The exception states:

“The terms “potentially dangerous” and “vicious” shall not apply to dogs used by law enforcement officials for legitimate law enforcement purposes, nor dogs used as certified guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf nor aid dogs for the handicapped nor shall it apply to licensed kennels, humane society shelters, animal control facilities, or veterinarians.”

When you’re bitten by a dog in North Alabama it can be shocking, painful, and even result in long-term injuries. If that happens to you, contact John M. Totten, Attorney at Law.

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