According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs annually in the United States, and over 300 deaths were related to dog attacks between 1979 and 1996, most of them children’s. An analysis by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found roughly 316,000 emergency room visits and 9,500 hospitalizations in 2008 were dog bite–related. DogsBite.org reports 31 dog bite–related human fatalities occurred in 2016 and a total of 392 deaths from 2005 through 2016. On its website, the Center for Disease Control also lists a number of diseases that can occur alongside the injury itself, a few of which include rabies, Capnocytophaga, Pasteurella, MRSA and tetanus.
Under § 4-13-16 Action for damages to animals, the owner or keeper of the dog is responsible for any injury to others. In most states, there are two necessary elements to establish a viable liability claim against a homeowner in the case of a dog bite: that the dog was dangerous and that the owner knew the dog was dangerous. Originally known as the “one dog, one bite” rule, the common law established that a dog-owner cannot be held responsible for his dog’s actions unless it can be proven that he knew the dog was dangerous; i.e., the dog had bitten someone before. However, Rhode Island has changed the rule on dog bites to a strict-liability situation:
§ 4-13-16: If any dog kills, wounds, worries, or assists in killing, wounding or worrying, any sheep, lamb, cattle, horse, hog, swine, fowl, or other domestic animal belonging to or in the possession of any person, or assaults, bites, or otherwise injures any person while traveling the highway or out of the enclosure of the owner or keeper of that dog, the owner or keeper of the dog shall be liable to the person aggrieved, for all damage sustained, to be recovered in a civil action, with costs of suit. If afterwards any such damage is done by that dog, the owner or keeper of the dog shall pay to the party aggrieved double the damage, to be recovered in the manner set forth and an order shall be made by the court before whom that second recovery is made, for killing the dog. The order shall be executed by the officer charged with the execution of the order, and it shall not be necessary, in order to sustain this action, to prove that the owner or keeper of the dog knew that the dog was accustomed to causing this damage.
Having eliminated the “one dog, one bite” rule in order to seek recovery, this statute opens the owner up to a slew of legal issues for injuries resulting from dog bites, regardless of how the dog came to be released. The statute mandates that there are only three elements needed to bring action against the homeowner: (1) that the defendant is the owner; (2) that the dog was outside of its enclosure; and (3) that injury was caused by the dog. However, there has been some question as to what is considered an enclosure. In the 1986 case of Bernhart v. Nine, the Supreme Court said: “The purpose of the enclosure is to give the entrant reasonable notice that he is entering upon occupied premises where there may be a dog and the requisite notice is afforded if the premises are set apart from adjoining property by boundaries sufficiently apparent to indicate the approximate limits of occupation.” In the 1992 case of Butti v. Rossi, the court said, “The term ‘enclosure’ includes not only a fence or physical obstruction but also any condition that will give reasonable notice that the land is private property.” Since the plaintiff does not have to prove that the dog was dangerous or that the owner or keeper knew the dog was dangerous, if the dog is outside the enclosure, those cases that fall within the statute are much easier to prove.
Of course, issues like these can be avoided by ensuring that there are no problems with the dog’s enclosure that would allow its escape, that the dog is on a leash at all times while in public, and by avoiding any stimulus that may incite a negative reaction from your dog. But most importantly, always remember that dogs experience separation anxiety just like we do, and need to channel their energy. Too often, we hear of owners leaving their dogs alone outside all day to brave the elements. Always give your dog the attention it needs and deserves!