For dogs, the COVID-19 pandemic has produced a favorable outcome. Since dog owners are staying home more and are in need of outdoor exercise, there have been greater opportunities for walks. Dog owners, however, need to remember that dog bites are a serious public health issue and can lead to substantial liability claims. (Because dogs rarely have money or insurance, it’s the dog owner and not the dog that gets sued.)
To briefly summarize dog bite liability law in Colorado, contrary to popular belief, dog owners are not entitled to one free bite — at least not if the bite causes “serious bodily injury.” That’s because Colorado has a statute making dog owners strictly liable for such injuries. “Strict” liability refers to a legal rule that permits recovery of damages without having to prove negligence. Under the Colorado statute, recovery for serious bodily injury is allowed “regardless of … the dog owner’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of the dog’s viciousness or dangerous propensities.” So, if Fifi’s first bite causes a serious injury, her owner can’t defend against a civil lawsuit by arguing she is a loving household pet and has never before demonstrated aggressive behavior.
“Owner” is a broadly defined term under the statute and includes anyone having control or custody of a dog. Therefore, if you are dog sitting for a friend or relative, you can be liable for serious bodily injury caused by the dog while in your care.
“Serious bodily injury” means a substantial risk of death, permanent disfigurement or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part of the body. Included in the definition is an injury involving fractures. The statute goes on to say that if the owner of a dog causing serious bodily injury had knowledge of the dog’s dangerous propensities, a court can, at the request of the victim, order that the dog be euthanized.
Under the statute, a dog owner is protected from liability if the injured person is trespassing, if the property where the bite occurs is posted with signs stating “no trespassing” or “beware of dog,” or if the injured person was provoking the dog. A dog owner is also protected if the dog was “working” when the injury occurred. Working includes farm and ranch duties, such as herding and predator control, and hunting.
A dog owner is additionally protected from liability if the injured party is a veterinarian, dog groomer, humane agency staff person, professional dog handler, trainer or dog show judge.
If a dog bite injury doesn’t rise to the level of serious bodily injury, a first-bite defense might in fact work. That’s because the injured party, to recover damages, must now prove negligence. If the dog owner had no reason to think a dangerous situation was present, proving negligence might be difficult.
Jim Flynn is with the Colorado Springs firm of Flynn & Wright. You can contact him at email@example.com.