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This week we are talking about legal liability for dogs. That is, if a dog injures someone or causes property damage, what are the consequences, and how can they be reduced, or even avoided entirely? This discussion applies to both dogs that you might own, but also dogs owned by others that might be under your care, or even simply because they are on your property. Dog owners can be very passionate about their dogs, and sensitive to the criticism of others, much like someone would be about their own children. Indeed, dogs are not only our best friends, they are members of our families.
This blog is not about any particular breed of dog, or how their owners train or care for them. Indeed, every breed of dog can be completely harmless, and also quite dangerous, depending on the circumstances. Rather, this discussion is about how the law may hold the owner of ANY dog responsible for injury, death or damage caused by a dog, and why having insurance is critical.
There are three principle ways that the law holds people responsible for harm caused by a dog.
The first is under general negligence law. This means that if the behaviour of the dog could cause foreseeable harm to others, the person whose control the dog is under has a responsibility to prevent the harm. This is true regardless of the ownership of the dog, or the location of the dog. For example, if you take a friend’s dog to an on-leash park, you let the dog off the leash, and the dog knocks an elderly person to the ground breaking their hip, you will likely be responsible for their injuries.
The second ground on which you may be legally responsible for injury caused by a dog, is if it occurs on property controlled by you. This is because in BC, a person who controls property must take reasonable steps to ensure activities conducted on the property do not pose unreasonable risks to others on the property. For example, you decide to host a backyard barbecue and invite all your friends to bring their dogs. You might know some of the dogs don’t get along but you hope for the best. During the barbecue a dog fight ensures, and a guest is badly bitten, suffering nerve damage and they are unable to use their dominant hand to work. Even though you don’t own the dog, because of your duty to ensure people are reasonably safe in using the property, you may be responsible for the injuries.
The last legal basis for liability is based on an old legal maxim called scienter – which is Latin for, essentially, knowledge of poor behaviour. Scienter means that if you own a dog, the dog has demonstrated a dangerous behaviour previously, and you knew that it had, you may be liable if that behaviour hurts someone. For example, a dog owner is aware their dog likes to chase motorcycles because they have seen the dog chase motorcycles. One day the owner forgets to tie the dog up and it chases another motorcycle and the motorcyclist loses control and is badly injured. The dog owner would likely be entirely at fault for the accident.
These are all tragic, but entirely realistic scenarios.
So, besides having your dog under a degree of control that is appropriate for the circumstances, what can dog owners do to reduce their legal risk? The answer is: insurance. Many people don’t know that their homeowners insurance policy includes $1 million in liability insurance that will pay for a legal defence and any money that they have to pay as a result of injury or damage caused by their dog. This is true even if the accident happens when you and your dog are away from the property, such as at the park. The same is true of renter’s or tenant’s insurance policies, and such insurance often only costs about $35 per month. In the last 10 years, approximately 25% of all claims made under homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies were made as a result of a dog causing injury or property damage. In the last several years the average value of dog related insurance claims has been $35,000 and $50,000. Obviously, no dog owner wants to be responsible for this type of debt. If you are not a homeowner or renter, or a family member living with someone who is, you likely do not have liability insurance if your dog gets you sued. However, you can buy separate liability insurance. Any insurance broker can help you with this.
In closing, if you are a dog owner, regardless of the breed, the responsible thing to do is ensure you have insurance to protect you, and any person that might be injured by your dog. Rarely does any dog intend to cause any harm, but unfortunately the intent of a dog matters not when you are the one being sued. I hope you found this blog helpful and thank you for watching.
We hope you have learned something from this week’s video blog. Please feel free to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive notice of our future weekly video blogs on the law. League and Williams is a Victoria, BC based law firm with expertise in injury law, estate disputes and marine law and may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 250-888-0002. If you are injured and would like a free consult, give us a call. We are here to help injured parties get the fair compensation that they are entitled to.