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Dog Bite Laws in Massachusetts

dog baring teeth

Massachusetts is a strict liability state when it comes to dog bites. In strict liability states, the owner is responsible for damages even if the dog has never exhibited violent behavior, or the owner was unaware of the dog’s possible violent behavior. According to Chapter 140, Section 155 of Massachusetts General Law, the owner or keeper of the dog is liable if:

  • The dog causes injury or property damage.
  • The injured person was not trespassing, committing another tort, or provoking the dog.

Defense Against Dog Bite Claims

When a victim brings forward a dog bite claim in Massachusetts, the owner really only has a handful of defense options. If the owner can prove that the victim was provoking the dog, trespassing on the owner’s property, or committing another tort, they may be able to escape liability.

A tort is a civil wrong that shifts the liability to the person committing the tort. Often in liability cases, torts are accidents. For instance, if a shop owner has a wet floor and that causes a customer to get injured, the slippery floor is an example of an unintentional tort, but the shop owner is still liable. When used as a defense in dog bite cases, torts generally need to be purposeful. If someone is mugging or attacking a dog owner, for example, and the owner’s dog bites that person, the dog owner is probably not liable because the victim was committing a tort against them.

However, there is an exception for people under the age of seven. In other words, if a six-year-old is trespassing and gets bitten by a dog, the dog owner would be liable. Similarly, if a two-year-old is taunting a dog and the dog snaps, the owner is also liable. If you are a dog owner, you should never leave your dog alone with children. It can be physically dangerous for the child and legally and financially dangerous for you.

In strict liability states, the owner stands a tougher time defending against a claim because it is unnecessary for a victim of a dog bite or attack, to prove the owner was negligent. Proving negligence is much more complex and therefore more difficult to determine.

Dog Keeper

As you may have noticed, liability doesn’t necessarily fall on the owner of the dog. It can also fall on the dog’s keeper. To explain, imagine someone is walking a dog. They are the keeper of the dog, and they may be held personally liable if the dog got away from them and attacked someone. If they are working as a dog walker for a company, the company may also be liable. Note that if a minor is the dog’s keeper, their parents are liable under Massachusetts state law.

If you decide to bring forward a dog bite claim, it’s important to pursue all these angles. Typically, claims are covered by the dog owner’s homeowners’ or renters’ insurance policy and potentially even by the dog owner’s assets or wages. But in cases, where there is no insurance or assets, you need to find other liable parties. For instance, if someone’s neighbor is walking the dog and the neighbor has insurance, your lawyer may suggest pursuing the neighbor as the liable party.

Landlord Liability

The Massachusetts dog bite statutes don’t mention landlords, but there are legal cases which set precedents on this issue. Landlords are not strictly liable in the same way that dog owners are. Instead, when a landlord is involved, the plaintiff typically needs to prove that the landlord had a duty to keep them safe and that the landlord was negligent in that duty.

If the landlord rents to someone with a dog and the dog attacks someone out of the blue, the landlord is usually not liable. The landlord had no way to predict that the attack would happen. However, that’s not always the case. Imagine that a landlord owns a four-plex. One tenant has a dog and another tenant repeatedly reports to the landlord that the dog is aggressive and potentially dangerous. The landlord refuses to take action and the tenant gets attacked in the hallway of the four-plex. In this situation, the landlord may be liable because they knew about the dog’s propensity to be dangerous.

Additionally, if the landlord is the dog’s keeper, the landlord can also be held liable in that situation. To give you an example, let’s say the tenant and the landlord lives in a duplex. The landlord watches the tenant’s dog when the tenant is at work. The dog attacks someone while the landlord is keeping in it. In this case, the landlord may be held liable as the keeper of the dog.

Types of Damages

Massachusetts state laws don’t just cover dog bites. They expressly refer to “any damage to either the body or property of any person”. That means if someone’s dog knocks you over and you sustain injuries, you may still be able to bring a lawsuit forward. Similarly, if the dog causes property damage such as creating a hole in your fence or chewing holes in your patio furniture, you can also hold the dog owner liable for those damages.

Filing a Personal Injury Lawsuit

According to Massachusetts’ Statute of Limitations, a person has three years to file a personal injury lawsuit, including those stemming from a dog bite or attack. Every state has its own statute of limitations, that’s the time period in which victims of dog bite attacks can bring up a case. If you wait longer than that, you can’t bring forward a case.

However, minors have three years from their 18th birthday to bring forward a case. To give you an example of when that might happen, let’s say you were attacked by a dog when you were 10 years old. Your parents didn’t want to bring forward a case because the dog owner was their friend, but tragically, you were disfigured in the attack and it affected your entire life. In this situation, you may want to bring forward a case when you become an adult, but again, you only have three years from your 18th birthday.

When it comes to dog bite laws in Massachusetts, if a victim wants to pursue legal action, they need to prove that the defendant owns the dog. Usually, the process starts with a public hearing. Essentially, that is the criminal case. Then, you can move forward with a civil case to recoup damages. The standards of proof are different in criminal and civil cases. Even if the dog owner is not convicted of any criminal charges, you may still be able to bring forward a civil suit successfully.

The Need for a Dog Bite Attorney

In most cases, homeowners’ insurance will cover a dog attack, but in order to recover full compensation for all your damages as well as pain and suffering, you need a lawyer by your side. Someone with experience handling dog bite cases can help you understand your legal rights and what damages you are entitled to. If you opt to just work directly with the insurance company, you are likely to receive a minimum amount of compensation that doesn’t cover all your damages. Ideally, when you have suffered serious injuries or property damage, you shouldn’t accept an offer until you speak to a dog bite attorney.

The strict protection of dog bite victims’ stems from Massachusetts law, requiring that owners must restrain and control dogs on all public property and their own private property. Failure to do so can entitle victims to compensation for their injuries, when and if pursued within the statute of limitations.

Massachusetts has one of the country’s best laws for the protection of dog bite victims. Even if the injury was minor, you can be better compensated for your damages if you have a lawyer that can help you understand these types of complex cases. To learn more and to set up a free case evaluation, contact us today. At Mazow | McCullough, PC, we have the experience you need when dealing with the aftermath of a dog attack.

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