Many states have laws spelling out when an injured person can sue a dog owner. For example, different rules apply in Georgia if an authority declared the dog dangerous. Florida applies different rules after the owner posts a bad-dog sign.
In Texas, we do things our own way, treating dogs more like any other property. When something we own (whether a dog or stairway) injures someone, we might be liable, especially if we knew about the danger or did not act reasonably to protect people.
A landmark Texas Supreme Court case set the rules
The decision did not involve a dog. It was a boar that charged at the neighbors many times and held them prisoners in their outhouse.
A neighbor wrote a note to the owner: “John, your boar has gone bad. He is trying to chase me off the farm. He stalks us just like a cat stalks a mouse every time he catches us out of the house.” Soon after, the boar severely injured that neighbor’s hand, resulting in the lawsuit.
Owners who know a dog can bite may be “strictly liable”
An owner who knows or “has reason to know” the animal is dangerous is potentially liable for injuries the animal causes. It does not matter whether the owner tried to restrain the animal or whether the injured person was partly at fault.
That legal standard may seem strict, but it is common and known as “strict liability.” Even if a product manufacturer tries hard to avoid making dangerous products, it can still be liable for them.
Owners who are not reasonably cautious may be negligent
A suit against the owner can also succeed if the owner was negligent, even if they had no reason to think the dog was unusually dangerous.
Neglecting to keep a dog under control (say, on a leash or fenced in) may result in the dog leaving the owner’s and injuring someone. This failure does not have to break city or county laws on keeping animals, although breaking such laws may be a good hint that the owner was negligent.