Dog Bite Liability Under Florida Law
The dog injury statutes under Florida law impose strict liability on the owners of any dog that bites or attacks another person even if the owner had no reason to believe that the dog was dangerous. The Florida legislature considered this remedy as necessary, but it also recognized the strict liability standard to be rather harsh. The legislation was intended to limit the types of defense available to the dog's owner to escape paying for the damages.
Under Florida Statute Section 767.01, "Owners of dogs shall be liable for any damage done by their dogs to a person..." under a strict liability standard that does not require any showing that the owners knew of the dogs dangerous propensities to attack or bite a human being.
Under Florida Statutes Section 767.04, "the owner of any dog that bites any person while such person is on or in a public place... is liable for damages suffered by persons bitten...."
If any dog does any damage to either the body or property of any person, the owner or keeper, or, if the owner or keeper is a minor, the parent or guardian of such minor, shall be liable for such damage, except when such damage has been occasioned to the body or property of a person who, at the time such damage was sustained, was committing a trespass or other tort, or was teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog. If a minor, on whose behalf an action under this section is brought, was under seven years of age at the time the damage was done, it shall be presumed that such minor was not committing a trespass or other tort, or teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog, and the burden of proof thereof shall be upon the defendant in such action.
Anyone who owns or keeps a dog is held strictly liable under our law for any damage caused by the dog, irrespective of whether the owner or keeper was negligent in controlling the dog. The statute is Sec. 22-357, and the relevant portions of the statute state:
"If any dog does any damage to either the body or property of any person, the owner or keeper . . . shall be liable for such damage, except when such damage has been occasioned to the body or property of a person who, at the time such damage was sustained, was committing a trespass or other tort, or was teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog."
A "keeper" of a dog means someone other than the owner who harbors or has possession of any dog.
The statute creates two exceptions to this rule of "strict liability." The first is that the statute exempts from liability the owner or keeper whose dog does damage to a person who was committing a "trespass or other tort." The word "tort" means a wrongful act. "Committing a trespass or other tort" means more than merely entering on the property or in the area where the dog was, but rather entering to commit an injury or a wrongful act. This means such wrongful acts committed against the person or property of the owner or keeper or her/his family, or similar wrongful acts, against which the dog, with its characteristic loyalty, would take defensive or protective action, or those if committed against the dog as would likely excite it to use its natural weapons of defense.
The second exception applies if you find that plaintiff was "teasing, tormenting, or abusing" the dog. Teasing, tormenting or abusing a dog means engaging in actions that would naturally annoy or irritate a dog and provoke it to retaliation. Such actions are those of such a nature as would naturally antagonize the dog and cause it to attack and which are improper in the sense that they are without justification.1 Playing with the dog in a friendly manner does not fall within the definition of "teasing, tormenting, or abusing" the dog.2
So the elements that the plaintiff must prove are 1) that the defendants were the owners or keepers of a dog, 2) that the dog did, in the language of the statute, "any damage to . . . the body or property" of the plaintiff, and 3) that neither of the exceptions applies.
Money Damages for Personal Injuries Cause by Dog Bites Under Florida Law
Florida law provides for money damages in certain cases for dog bite injures which can include compensation for the following:
pain and suffering;
loss of the capacity for the enjoyment of life;
loss of consortium claims; and
future medical bills.
Defenses to Strict Liability Applies to Both Statutes
After a dog bite case, it is important that your personal injury attorney fully investigate the case to preserve all of the evidence including pictures of your damages and medical records. Your attorney will also want to preserve evidence to show that the plaintiff did not contribute to the injuries by provoking the dog or that the dog owner did not warn the plaintiff of the dog's potential to attack through a "bad dog" sign displayed on the property.
The Bad Dog Sign Defense
The "bad dog" signage defense is an affirmative defense and the burden is on the defendant to assert and prove the defense. This defense provides that a dog owner is not liable for personal injury claims for injuries that occurred on the dog owner's property if at the time the injury occurred, the owner displayed in a prominent place an easily readable sign that says "Beware of Dog." The defense does not apply if the dog bite or attack hurt a child under the age of six (6) years old.
Defense of Comparative Negligence - Provocation Defense
The provocation defense basically means that the dog owner should not be held liable for the damages to the extent that the plaintiff's negligence caused the injury. The theory behind this defense is that if the plaintiff knowingly and voluntarily risked being injured by the dog then the strict liability rule should not apply. For instance, if the plaintiff did any of the following: kicked, hit, pushed, taunted, or otherwise provoked the canine into reacting then the plaintiff's damages should be reduced by the same percentage that the plaintiff's negligence was responsible for the damages.
The case law is well-settled that under the dog bite statute a comparative negligence standard applies under which “any negligence on the part of the person bitten that is a proximate cause of the biting incident reduces the liability of the owner of the dog by the percentage that the bitten person’s negligence contributed to the biting incident.”
The Provocation Defense Applies to Both Florida Dog Bite Statutes
Defenses for “comparative negligence” are not explicitly found in Florida Statute 767.01, which was adopted long before the dog bite statute. In fact, the Courts have consistently held that the defenses contained in Florida Statute Section 767.04 apply equally to claims under Florida Statute Section 767.01. See e.g., Kilpatrick v. Sklar, 548 So. 2d 215, 74 A.L.R.4th 1111 (Fla. 1989); Staniszeski v. Walker, 550 So. 2d 19 (Fla. 2d DCA 1989).
The previous version of Fla. Statute Section 767.04 provided that “no owner of any dog shall be liable for any damages to any person or his property when such person shall mischievously or carelessly provoke or aggravate the dog inflicting such damage.” (emphasis added). This same defense of “provoke or aggravation” of the dog is included within the comparative negligence standard referenced in the current version of the statute. Referring to the prior defense of aggravation and provocation, the Court in Donner v. Arkwright-Boston Manufacturers Mutual Insurance Company, 358 So.2d 21 (Fla. 1978), stated that “the legislature apparently felt that good morals dictated that if a person kicks, teases, or in some other way provokes the dog into injuring him, he should not be compensated.” Id. at 24.
Statutory Limitations on Liability for Dog Bite Cases
In the following types of dog bite cases, statutory defense under Florida law act to limit liability, including:
protections for veterinarians or other veterinary clinic employees;
individual employed by animal control services or recognized animal shelters working with stray dogs;
state or local municipality employees working within the scope of their employment;
state or local law enforcement officers that use dogs for law enforcement of correctional purposes or training;
service dogs being used to provide assistance to a person with a medical disability;
dogs that attack a person involved in criminal activity such as a burglary or robbery;
dogs that are on a leash and under control;
In certain cases, the person injured may seek to recover damages from someone other than the owner of the dog. In those cases, the strict liability statute does not usually apply. Instead, the negligence standard generally applies. Under the negligence standard, the dog's known propensities may become an important issue in the case. In other words, if the defendant knew that the dog was dangerous, then that knowledge can create some duty on the person's part to protect other people that come into contact with the dog.
Warning signs that the dog may be dangerous can include warning signs such as previous dog bites or attacks, barking at strangers or guests in the home, jumping up on people, frightening individuals, complaints about the dogs, or fighting with other dogs.