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When Is a Dog Owner Liable for Injuries the Dog Caused?

For many people, the old adage, “A dog is a man’s best friend,” accurately describes the human-canine relationship. When a dog attacks a human, however, it can result in physical injuries and psychological trauma that could last for years. In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, you may be held financially liable for the injuries caused by your dog if it bites someone. The extent of your liability depends on several factors.

Pennsylvania’s Dog Bite Statute

Like most states, Pennsylvania has a dog bite statute that governs some dog bite claims. The dog bite statute applies in situations where the dog in question has not previously bitten or injured someone. A dog owner’s liability for a “first bite/injury” depends on the severity of the injury caused by the attack.

If the dog bite caused a “severe injury,” the owner of the dog may be liable for the medical expenses incurred as a result of the bite, any other losses suffered as a result of the bite and for legal expenses incurred in the pursuit of compensation. Other losses may include things such as pain, suffering, disfigurement, anxiety, loss of income and future earning potential. Pennsylvania defines a “severe injury” in this context as “any physical injury that results in broken bones or disfiguring lacerations requiring multiple sutures or cosmetic surgery.”

If the dog bite did not cause a severe injury, the owner of the dog remains liable for medical expenses related to the injury; however, the victim cannot collect compensation for additional losses, like pain and suffering, or legal expenses.

Pennsylvania Common Law Negligence Claim

Under Pennsylvania common law pertaining to negligence, where a dog has previously bitten someone, or shown “vicious propensities,” the dog owner can be held liable. Under this theory of liability, an owner may be responsible for medical expenses relating to the injuries plus all other losses related to the dog bite. In order to successfully bring a claim, it is not necessary for the offending dog to have completed a previous attack. If the dog showed “vicious propensities,” by attempting to attack someone, or engaging in similar behavior demonstrating a proclivity to be a threat, prior to the bite that is the basis for the current claim, an owner may be held liable if the owner knew or should have known of the dog’s previous conduct. Because this law is based on negligence, the issue for the court or a jury will be whether the owner used reasonable care to prevent the dog from causing injuries.

Defenses Available to an Owner

In Pennsylvania, there are only two potential defenses to a dog bite claim. The first is provocation. Stated simply, if the injured victim provoked the dog prior to the attack, the owner may escape liability completely or the provocation may mitigate the amount of the damage award to the victim.

The other potential defense in a dog bite claim is trespass. If the victim was on the owner’s property without permission, that may constitute trespass and, therefore, may be asserted as a defense in an attempt to avoid liability for the injuries caused by the dog.

Because the dog bite laws in Pennsylvania are complex and often difficult to interpret, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Lancaster County dog bite attorney if you, or a loved one, has been injured in a dog attack. Georgelis, Larsen & Sabatino Injury Law Firm, P.C. has successfully handled these cases for decades. Put the experience, knowledge and power of the Georgelis Firm behind you.


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