When dogs bite without provocation, their owners may be liable for the harms. A dog bite or attack can leave serious personal injury or even cause wrongful death. Injuries inflicted by dogs can be both traumatic and expensive. Torn ligaments and deep muscle injuries can result in decreased sensation and dexterity. More serious attacks can cause disfigurement, requiring consultation with dermatologists, orthopedists, plastic surgeons, and other medical specialists. Any encounter with an aggressive dog may cause long- lasting psychological trauma.
But Oregon dog bite laws can be a bit confusing, especially for those trying to understand them after a dog’s teeth have inflicted puncture wounds or other injuries. Dog owners as well as dog bite victims should understand the legal actions possible to prevent harm from occurring and to protect legal rights when it does.
The "One-Bite" Rule
Some people believe—falsely—that Oregon law gives a dog “one free bite" before its owner can be held responsible for any damages. The “one-bite-rule," however, does not prevent a victim from recovering economic damages in an action arising from injury caused by a dog. “Economic damages" include medical, hospital, nursing, rehabilitative services, and other health care services, loss of income, and past and future impairment of earning capacity. A dog bite victim can recover all of these without proving that the dog bit someone previously.
If the dog bite plaintiff proves that the dog owner knew or had reason to know that the dog had dangerous propensities, then he or she can also recover “noneconomic damages." Under ORS 31.710, these include “pain, mental suffering, emotional distress, humiliation, injury to reputation, loss of care, comfort, companionship and society, loss of consortium, inconvenience and interference with normal and usual activities apart from gainful employment."
The “one-bite rule" is misunderstood because a dog owner’s liability for a dog bite can be either strict or based on negligence. Strict liability for a dog bite is liability for an injury that is neither intentional nor negligent. It is imposed by statute without regard to the defendant’s conduct. In other words, a defendant can take every conceivable precaution to prevent a particular kind of harm, but may still be liable if the harm occurs. Oregon law applies strict liability in dog bite cases only if the dog owner person possesses a dog that the person knows or has reason to know is abnormally dangerous. If the dog owner doesn’t know that the dog is abnormally dangerous, he or she can be liable for medical and other economic damages for negligent failure to control or confine the dog, most likely in violation of a leash law or running at-large ordinance.
Dog owners expecting “one free bite" should know that the law does not require a large amount of proof to show that they knew or should have known of dangerous propensities. Knowledge that certain breeds are statistically more likely to be dangerous, for example, may be imputed to a dog owner.
Knowledge of a dog’s vicious propensities might also be raised even without proof that the dog had actually bitten someone by evidence that it had been known to growl, snap, or bare its teeth. An owner’s choice to keep a dog for security purposes may also imply knowledge of viciousness. So may the decision to restrain the dog, especially when the manner in which the dog is restrained indicates that the dog may endanger others if not controlled.
Local ordinances may be more restrictive than Oregon statutes on defining and regulating aggressive canine behavior. If you or loved ones have been hurt by someone's dog, seek immediate medical attention and contact a dog bite attorney.