Animal Attacks – Dog Bite Cases: The One Free Bite Rule?

I saw a blurb in the Austin American Statesman that officials took possession of a pit bull today after it was involved in a vicious dog attack

I immediately thought about the “one free bite” rule.  Ask any lay person or non-personal injury lawyer, and everyone knows about the “one free bite” rule.

Except there is no such rule.

In Texas, persons that are harmed by domesticated animals (dogs, cattle, etc.) generally have two potential claims that they can make.  The more common claim is a strict liability claim for injuries caused by dangerous domesticated animals, which means that an animal owner may be liable for any damages caused by the owner’s dangerous animal.

There are generally four things you would have to show to prevail on a strict liability claim:

  1. that the person you’re suing owned or possessed the animal;
  2. that the animal had dangerous tendencies abnormal to its type of animal;
  3. the person you’re suing knew or had reason to know about the dangerous tendencies; and
  4. the animal’s dangerous tendencies were the cause of your injury.  

The “one free bite” rule misconception comes from the third requirement — you need to show that the animal owner knew the animal was dangerous.  Now, certainly, if the animal has a history of biting people, you can use that to prove this.  But just because the dog hasn’t bitten  anyone else, doesn’t let the owner off the hook.

You can prove this requirement by showing other ways that the owner might have known the animal was dangerous.  You might do this by showing that the dog was aggressive, growled, knocked people down, excessively pulled on a leash towards people, etc.  Any of these might be sufficient to prove your claim even when the dog hasn’t yet bitten someone. 

Yes, prior bites by the dog makes proving the case easier, but it certainly isn’t necessary, and there’s no “one free bite” rule. 

The second type of claim is a negligent handling claim.  To win on that claim, you need to show that the owner or possessor of the animal had a duty to keep the animal restrained and that the owner or possessor breached that duty.

There is no requirement here to even know that the animal had  dangerous history.  For example, some of the notable cases using this theory include a case where the defendant left a dog tied up, which an expert testified made the dog aggressive (even though the owner didn’t know it) and a case where the owner didn’t keep a monkey properly restrained.

Again, a history of biting or attacking is helpful, but not necessary to proving your claim from an animal attack or dog bite.

By the way, I use dog bites as the example because they’re the most popular of these claims.  But these claims apply to any time an animal causes injuries.  For example, I’ve used these theories in pursuing cases where a bull got out of a pasture and was involved in a collision with a car and where dogs got out of a fence causing a car wreck.

Posted on: January 23, 2012 |

Perlmutter & Schuelke, PLLC maintains offices in Austin, Texas. However, our attorneys and lawyers represent clients throughout the state of Texas, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Forth Worth, El Paso, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Kyle, Buda, Round Rock, Georgetown, Lockhart, Bastrop, Elgin, Manor, Brenham, Cedar Park, Burnet, Marble Falls, Temple and Killeen. By Brooks Schuelke


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