Some have observed that Washington is one of the most “dog friendly” of all states. Many local municipalities set aside parks especially for dogs and their owners. Restaurants have outdoor areas where both K-9s and their “masters” can be served. In some areas, one can check one’s puppy into a dog hotel.
When it comes to dogs that bite, however, state law is quite serious. Washington law imposes strict liability on dog owners whose animals bite someone [see RCW 16.08.040].
Owner’s Liability Does Not Depend Upon a Dog’s “Vicious” Propensity
Under English common law, which was generally adopted by the states, a dog owner could be held liable for his or her dog’s bite, only if the owner had reason to know that the dog might bite. This became known as the “one bite” rule; how could you know that your dog would bite until it had done so? Over time, however, many states – including Washington – came to understand dog ownership as a privilege and responsibility, not a right. Washington accordingly enacted its provision that imposes liability on a dog owner, even for that first bite.
Washington Law is More Strict Than Some
Some states impose strict liability on the owner of the dog only if the person suffering the bite was on public property (including streets, sidewalks, and parks). Washington law goes a bit further: Not only is the dog owner responsible for any bites that take place in a public place, he or she is also strictly liable for bites that occur on private property – including the property of the owner of the dog – as long as the bite victim is lawfully present on the property. For example, a burglar who breaks into your house can hardly be heard to complain if he or she is bitten after breaking and entering.
Dog Bites are Common, and Damages Sustained by Victims are Real
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that dogs bite approximately 4.5 million Americans each year. The injuries can be serious, even life-threatening. Reports indicate that at least one in five dog bites become infected. Half of all dog attacks involve children under the age of eleven.
According to statistics maintained by the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites account for more than one-third of all homeowners’ insurance liability claim dollars paid out each year. They cost insurance carriers more than $483 million annually.
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