Can I Get Sued if My Dog Bites a Trespasser?

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Your loving and loyal pooch had a total meltdown when he spotted a stranger trespassing onto his home turf. He stepped up to ward off this intruder by doing what he knew best; barking, growling, posturing, and ultimately biting when his warnings were ignored. Can that person now sue you? The answer to that can be different depending on the state or province you live in however a common theme appears to be:

  • If you were home during the trespass, was the individual warned that your dog was present and would be set loose if they did not leave?
  • Has the dog previously exhibited aggressive behaviors towards humans?
  • Is your pet’s breed banned in your state or province?
  • Is the dog a pet or is he specifically on the premises to perform guard duty?

With these points in mind, the general rule of thumb is that you may well be responsible if your dog defends your property from trespassers by biting. However, exceptions to these rules apply and you’ll need to read up on the laws for your specific jurisdiction. What can impact an intruder’s ability to sue for injury, is whether you directed your dog to attack versus alerted the individual to the harm your pet is prepared to deliver if they don’t leave. It’s called “standard of care” and while it may be frustrating to learn that you owe an intruder a measure of safety when they unlawfully enter your premises, it’s not an unusual expectation from the courts or from insurance companies who have to foot the bill if you are sued.

And while this standard of care is not to the level you would provide a welcomed guest, it must be “reasonable” which means not unnecessarily exposing the individual to danger. This means that if you are home, you need to offer some type of warning – such as advising of a dog on premises – that will allow them the opportunity to choose to escape injury. Heads up here: posting a “Beware of Dog” sign on your property perimeter is not sufficient to absolve you of legal responsibility.

Now, if you are aware that your pet exhibits aggressive or dangerous behaviors towards humans or if he is a breed that is banned in your jurisdiction, you will almost certainly be liable for any injuries to a trespasser. And this is in effect regardless of whether you warned them of your pet’s presence.

North of the border, in Ontario, the laws dictate that if an individual is bitten or attacked by a dog while they are on-premises with the intent of committing a criminal act, the owner is not liable. Again, unless, the dog was known to be aggressive and kept less as a pet and more for personal security.

Similarly, in states such as Maryland, the owner is not liable for injury to a person if their dog attacked the individual while that person was in the process of committing a trespass-related crime, or attempting to attack the owner. In fact, it’s one of a few states that continue to follow the rule of “contributory negligence” in this type of personal injury case. In short, the owner is not liable for damages if it is determined the victim was even only marginally responsible for his or her injuries. This would include not heeding the warning of a property owner, when advised there is a dog on-premises that could become aggressive.

The bottom line is to understand the rules in your particular jurisdiction, read-up on what your property insurance covers (and doesn’t cover), and be prepared to muzzle or leash a dog that has become riled up, rather than setting him loose on an intruder.


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