In North Carolina, there are two ways that an owner may be liable for dog bites. First, N.C.G.S § 67-4.1 provides for strict liability for attacks by “dangerous dogs”. Second, some common law or case law has found that particular breeds of dog such as Rottweilers and Pit Bulls may give rise to liability for negligence.
1. N.C.G.S § 67-4.1 (statutory strict liability for dogs that have bit someone or been aggressive as follows)
(1) “Dangerous dog” means
a. A dog that:
1. Without provocation has killed or inflicted severe injury on a person; or
2. Is determined by the person or Board designated by the county or municipal authority responsible for animal control to be potentially dangerous because the dog has engaged in one or more of the behaviors listed in subdivision (2) of this subsection.
b. Any dog owned or harbored primarily or in part for the purpose of dogfighting, or any dog trained for dogfighting.
(2) “Potentially dangerous dog” means a dog that the person or Board designated by the county or municipal authority responsible for animal control determines to have:
a. Inflicted a bite on a person that resulted in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations or required cosmetic surgery or hospitalization, or
b. Killed or inflicted severe injury upon a domestic animal when not on the owner’s real property; or
c. Approached a person when not on the owner’s property in a vicious or terrorizing manner in an apparent attitude of attack.
(3) “Owner” means any person or legal entity that has a possessory property right in a dog.
(4) “Owner’s real property” means any real property owned or leased by the owner of the dog, but does not include any public right-of-way or a common area of a condominium, apartment complex, or townhouse development.
(5) “Severe injury” means any physical injury that results in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations or required cosmetic surgery or hospitalization.
So, in a nutshell, this statute creates the “One Bite Rule” that you may have heard about. The One Bite Rule is an over-simplified explanation oft the above. The purpose of this rule is that once there has been a prior attack, the owner is now on notice that the dog can be dangerous. This prior notice creates foreseeability that this may happen again. The law then puts this risk on the owners if they chose to keep the dogs. This One Bite Rule is the law in around eighteen states.
2. Common-Law Negligence–
A. Horses- I will not discuss horse liability here as it is more complicated with specific statutes that will apply. However, horse liability did give rise to the dangerous animal/breed rule which later created tort liability for some dogs. In Williams v. Tysinger, 328 N.C. 55, 399 S.E.2d 108 (1991), the Supreme Court discussed a mother’s claim to recover medical expenses after her minor child was kicked in the head by a horse. The mother’s negligence action against the owner of the horse was identified as not the wrongful keeping of a vicious animal; rather . . . encouraging two young children to play with a horse after being warned by the children’s mother that they had no familiarity with horses or any other large animals. The issue of the owner’s negligence therein was not dependent upon the owner’s knowledge of any vicious or dangerous propensities of the horse. Nonetheless, the Court held the owner was chargeable on a claim of negligence with knowledge of the general propensities of the horse, including “the fact that the horse might kick without warning or might inadvertently step on a person.”
Comment- So, the Williams case developed a “dangerous propensity” rule whether or not the animal has attacked someone before.
B. Rottweiler dog bite cases (pit bull dog bites will apply as well)
1. Hill v. Williams, 144 NCApp 45 (2001) Although no case in this jurisdiction has invoked the Williams rule where the domestic animal was a dog, we conclude that application of the rule is appropriate on the facts herein. The negligence of defendants as owners of Rowdy was not premised upon their knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities; that claim was dismissed by the trial court and plaintiffs have not cross-appealed. Rather, for purposes of plaintiffs’ negligence claim, defendants, “as owners of [Rowdy], were ‘chargeable with the knowledge of the general propensities,'” id. at 60, 399 S.E.2d at 111 (quoting Griner, 43 N.C. App. 400, 407, 259 S.E.2d 383, 388), of the Rottweiler animal. Plaintiffs’ expert Dr. Wilson related that the Rottweiler breed was brought to the United States in the mid-1980’s for use as a guard dog or dog of personal protection. He described the Rottweiler breed as very strong, aggressive and temperamental, suspicious of strangers, protective of its space, and unpredictable. Dr. Wilson further testified that he took great care while examining mature Rottweiler dogs in his practice because they were believed to be dogs that might bite.
Comment- so the Hill case took the dangerous propensity rule laid out in Williams and applied this rule to dogs.
2. Harris v. Barefoot, 206 N.C. App. 308, 311 (N.C. Ct. App. 2010) Plaintiff argues that defendant Barefoot knew or should have known that his dog could have posed a danger to others because Rottweilers are aggressive and dangerous by nature, and that defendant Barefoot’s treatment of the dog — keeping the dog tethered in his yard most of the time — not only shows that he knew the dog could be violent but also contributed to the dog’s vicious nature. The facts, however, do not support any of these contentions. While our courts have found that Rottweilers are aggressive by nature and that it might be negligent not to keep them restrained, the plaintiff has not presented any evidence showing that Riley was indeed a Rottweiler. Plaintiff consistently refers to the dog as a “ninety-pound Rottweiler,” but failed to forecast any evidence as to the dog’s actual weight or breed. Defendant Barefoot stated that the dog weighed forty-five pounds and was a mixed breed dog, including some Rottweiler ancestry. Even taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, as we must, we find no basis to infer the breed of the dog as a Rottweiler. As such, plaintiff’s argument related to the dog’s breed must fail.
Comment- The Harris case was the second case to allude to the dangerous propensity rule, but since the plaintiff did not provide any supportive testimony their argument was insufficient. So, to pursue one of these cases on a dangerous breed theory you will need an expert. The owners will strongly argue that their pit bull has never attacked anyone. However, that is often the case. I have seen terrible cases, severe mauling of children and deaths from such family dogs with no history of violence. Some dogs were bred in the past to be aggressive, and it is in their genes to be so.
C. Cats bites!? (Lol, no.)
Thomas v. Weddle, 167 N.C. App. 283, 287 (N.C. Ct. App. 2004) However, with regards to injuries inflicted by normally gentle or tame domestic animals, the law is clear that “the test for liability is whether the owner knew or should have known from the animal’s past conduct, including acts evidencing a vicious propensity . . . ‘that [the animal] is likely, if not restrained, to do an act from which a reasonable person, in the position of the owner, could foresee that an injury to the person or property of another would be likely to result.'” Slade v. Stadler, 150 N.C. App. 677, 678, 564 S.E.2d 298, 299 (2002) (quoting Hunnicutt v. Lundberg, 94 N.C. App. 210, 211, 379 S.E.2d 710, 711-12 (1989)), aff’d, 356 N.C. 659, 576 S.E.2d 328 (2003).
In the instant case, plaintiffs allege injuries caused by a domestic cat, a species traditionally considered to be generally harmless. “The domestic cat is by nature ordinarily harmless and docile.” Goodwin v. E. B. Nelson Grocery Co., 239 Mass. 232, 235, 132 N.E. 51, 53 (1921). Further, plaintiffs presented no evidence that this particular cat was of a species or breed known to be dangerous.
Summary– If you have an average dog-like Labs, then the One Bite Rule will apply. This means that the owner will only have liability if that Lab had attacked someone before or the other acts listed above. However, if you have a Dangerous Breed like Rottweilers and pit bulls then you may be liable for any attack. While the designation of “Dangerous Breed” is very contentious you should read these articles on dog bites. As you can see, almost all studies have shown that pit bulls make up the majority of severe injury and death cases. Also, around half of the people killed by dogs are under the age of eight. In the US, people are entitled to own these dogs. However, the public does not have to bear the risk for this choice. The owners do. With more than four million dog bites in the US every year, it is important to hold owners responsible for their choices. While it does look “cool” to walk a large pit bull on a chain leash, the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for your coolness.