Most people are aware that a dog owner can be sued if their dog bites someone. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 885,000 people are bitten by dogs each year, and one out of every five of those require medical attention. But, what if a dog doesn’t bite you, but instead knocks you down or scratches you causing injury? Under Pennsylvania law, the owner of a dog may still be liable for the actions of their dog, even if the dog didn’t bite someone. Pennsylvania law does not impose strict liability on dog owners if their dog bites someone. The Dog Law holds dog owners liable for damages if they failed to keep their dog in the house or yard, on a leash, or “under the reasonable control of some person.” 3 P.S. § 459-305. An unexcused violation of Pennsylvania’s Dog Law is negligence per se. However, liability will only attach, for a per se violation of Pennsylvania’s Dog Law, if the violation is a substantial factor in bringing about the injuries sustained. In Miller v. Hurst, 448 A.2d 614 (Pa. Super. 1982), the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that if a dog owner is found to have violated Pennsylvania's dog confinement law, the owner is liable for any injuries that result, even if the owner had no way to know that the dog would act aggressively or had ever acted aggressively before. Pennsylvania law treats dog attacks differently if the dog involved is deemed a “dangerous dog”. According to Pennsylvania's Dangerous Dog Law, 3 P.S. § 459-502-A, a dog is a "dangerous dog" if:
the dog has injured a person, without provocation, on public or private property,
the dog has killed or injured a domestic animal without provocation, while off the owner's property,
the dog has attacked a human being without provocation, or
the dog was used to commit a crime.
In addition to any of the above elements, the dog must also have a history of attacking either humans or domestic animals, or a "propensity" for attacking either humans or domestic animals without provocation. It is important to know that a propensity to attack may be proven by a single incident, even if it is only the first attack. A Pennsylvania dog owner typically has two defenses to a dog bite claim: provocation and trespassing. Pennsylvania's dog bite laws specify that in order for the owner to be held liable for injuries, the dog must have caused injury "without provocation." If the dog owner can show that the injured person provoked the dog, the owner may not be held liable. In addition, an owner may not be liable if the injured person was trespassing on the owner's property at the time of the bite. Section 459-507-A of the Dog Law specifies that Pennsylvania's dog bite laws do not apply if the injured person was committing a "willful trespass" at the time of the injury. The provisions of the Dog Law related to “dangerous dogs” applies to both the owner and a keeper of the dog. 3 P.S. § 459-507-A(3). This has been used to impose liability upon landlords for injuries caused by their tenant’s pet if it can be shown that the landlord knew of the presence of the dog and the dog’s violent propensity. Underwood v. Wind, 954 A.2d 1199 (Pa. Super. 2008). Because dog bite law and liability can be confusing, it is important to document what occurred and the aftermath. It is also important to determine not only who owned the dog, but also who owns the property where the dog lived and if the dog owner is a renter, commercial tenant or guest of the property owner. After suffering a dog attack injury, you should immediately seek medical attention and contact the police or Dog Warden in your area to make a report of the incident.