We all love animals here at Siniard, Timberlake & League, and for some of us, we feel like our dogs are almost members of the family. Unfortunately, however, sometimes man’s best friend can be an enemy in disguise, and Alabama law places important responsibilities upon dog owners if their pets cause injury to others. Dog owners can be held responsible for injuries under Alabama’s common law if their pet has displayed prior dangerous propensities, if their dog belongs to an “inherently vicious or dangerous breed,” or pursuant to Alabama statutory law if the injury was on the dog owner’s property.
Traditionally, people often say that there is a “one bite rule,” meaning that if a dog has never bitten anyone before, then the owner is not responsible for the “first bite.” This is not actually the law. In reality, Alabama’s common law states that the “owner or keeper” of a dog is responsible for any injuries caused by the dog if they knew that the animal had previously “displayed vicious or dangerous propensities.” This means that the dog’s owner, or a person who does not own the dog but who is responsible for it (i.e., it’s “keeper”), is legally responsible for the dog’s behavior if the dog has previously acted in such a way that shows it poses a danger to humans. This kind of behavior is not limited to just a previous “bite,” but can include other demonstrations of vicious behavior, such as trying to bite or attack a person. Dangerous behavior is also not limited to “attacks” by the dog, but can also include what the courts have called “mischievous” behavior, where the dog is playing, but in a way that is dangerous to humans.
The Supreme Court of Alabama has also held that, even if an individual dog has not demonstrated viciousness in the past, the dog’s owner is presumed to know of any particular vicious or dangerous characteristics of the dog’s breed, and will be held accountable for any injuries if a dog belongs to a “vicious or dangerous” breed. In Humphries v. Rice, the victim was attacked by the defendant’s pit bull dog, which had never attacked a person before, but which had attacked and killed other dogs and which could hang by its jaws from a tire swing for five minutes. After examining the history and physical characteristics of pit bulls as a breed, the Court found that it was foreseeable that an unprovoked attack by a pit bull could occur, and held that, in Alabama, “an owner or keeper of an animal will be charged with knowledge of the propensities of the breed of animal he or she owns.”
This common law “vicious or dangerous propensities” standard applies no matter where a dog bite may occur. However, our statutory law — Alabama Code § 3-6-1 — holds a dog owner liable for attacks which occur on the owner’s property, regardless of whether or not the dog had previously acted in a dangerous manner. Section 3-6-1 states, “If any dog shall, without provocation, bite or injure a person who is at the time at a place where he or she has a legal right to be, the owner of such dog shall be liable in damages to the person so bitten or injured, but such liability shall arise only when the person so bitten or injured is upon property owned or controlled by the owner of such dog at the time such bite or injury occurs or when such person has been immediately prior to such time on such property and has been pursued therefrom by such dog.” This law is often referred to as the “meter man” or “milk man” statute. It means that any time a person is attacked by a dog while legally on the owner’s property—such as while delivering a package or while visiting with the owner, then the owner will be responsible for any medical expenses or lost wages the victim suffers as a result of the attack.
Our personal injury firm has extensive experience with dog bite cases in Alabama, and while we love animals, we recognize that keeping an animal is a serious matter and comes with responsibilities. The owners of vicious or dangerous animals, or of dogs which belong to vicious breeds, should take the appropriate steps to prevent their pets from injuring others, and should be held to their responsibilities if injuries do occur. If you or a loved one has been injured by a dog, feel free to contact us to discuss your rights and the owner’s responsibilities.