Houston Dog Bites: The Basics

A sunny day at the Danny Jackson Bark Park turns into your worst nightmare when your fuzzy friend Sparky starts growling at a nearby toddler for no apparent reason. Sparky has never shown a hostile attitude like this before, and you immediately start commanding him to calm down and return to your side. Your commands are to no avail, as Sparky pounces on the helpless child and bites deep into his arm before you can pull Sparky off. Sparky has calmed down, and the kid will be alright after some stiches, but now what? What happens to Sparky? Will you be liable for the medical bills? What if the situation was reversed, and your child was the victim of a dog bite? Find the no-nonsense answers to these questions and more in this overview of dog bite cases in Houston.

First Steps

If the victim's injury is serious, seek medical attention immediately, If not, wash the wound with warm, soapy water and consult a physician. You may want to  make sure you have a current tetanus shot, too. You should confine the animal if possible, without endangering your safety. If you cannot contain the animal, make every attempt to find the owner of the animal or keep the animal in sight to help the animal control officer who will do the investigating. If you suspect the animal has rabies, contact Houston's Rabies Suspect Investigations Section at (713) 229-7300. If not, you can report all animal bites by calling (713) 229-7300 if you live within the city limits of Houston, or (281) 999-3191 if you live in Harris County.

The One Bite Rule

Unlike most states, Texas does not have a "dog bite statute." Instead, Texas courts adhere to the common law "one bite rule."

The one bite rule establishes that a victim can recover compensation from the owner, harborer or keeper of a dog if (a) the dog previously bit a person or acted like it wanted to, and (b) the defendant was aware of the dog's previous conduct. The tendency for a dog to injure humans is often referred to as "vicious propensities." If either of these two conditions aren't met, the victim cannot recover under this doctrine. In other words, Texas dogs gets one free bite before its owner is liable for damages.

Texas' lack of dog bite statute is at odds with the majority of states because the one bite rule shields a dog owner from liability each time one of his dogs bites a person for the first time unless it can be proved that the owner knew that the dog had the propensity to bite people without justification. This makes is significantly harder for dog bite victims to recover damages.

Negligent Handling

A dog bite victim may also initiate a negligent handling action, which applies when the owner or possessor of the dog failed to handle the animal as a reasonably prudent individual.

This doctrine comes into play in dog bite cases when a person creates an obvious risk of a dog bite, for example letting a stray dog enter a preschool building unattended. To recover on a negligent handling claim, a plaintiff must prove: (1) the defendant owned or possessed an animal; (2) the defendant owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent the animal from injuring others; (3) the defendant breached (failed to meet) that duty; and (4) this failure caused plaintiff's injury.

The advantage of this type of action is that there is no need to demonstrate that the owner or possessor has knowledge of the dog's vicious tendencies.

Negligence Per Se

Individuals are presumed to have acted negligently whenever they violate a law and cause an injury that the law was designed to prevent. This "negligence per se" doctrine comes into play in dog bite cases when someone violates animal control laws, such as those requiring that dogs be on leash, or those prohibiting them from being at large or from trespassing. To prevail on a claim, the plaintiff must show that there was a violation of a statute, and that the violation caused his or her injuries.

Texas Health and Safety Code section 822 contains most of the applicable state animal control laws, while Chapter 6 of the Houston municipal code contains more restrictions.

Landlord Liability

A landlord or landowner in this state can be held liable for failing to rid premises of a known dangerous dog. In one case, Baker v. PennOak Properties, Ltd., 874 S.W.2d 274 (1994), a court established a two-part test for landlord liability where: 1) the injury must have occurred in a "common area" under the control of the landlord; and 2) the landlord must have had knowledge of the particular dog's vicious propensities.

Comparative Negligence Defense

Texas permits a dog owner to mount a defense based on the comparative negligence of the dog bite victim. If successful, the damages awarded by the jury are reduced by the degree of the plaintiff's negligence. For example, if the jury finds that the victim's own conduct (e.g., in teasing a distressed animal) was 10% responsible for causing the incident, the victim's recovery is reduced by 10%.

Impoundment

Houston municipal code provides that animal control services may impound any dog found to be running at large. If the animal is licensed with the city, the dog's owner will be notified shortly thereafter. The owner then has six days to pick up their dog from the animal shelter. On the seventh, the dog may be offered for adoption or euthanized at the animal shelter's discretion.

Statute of Limitations or Time Limits on Dog Bite Cases

Plaintiffs have two years to initiate their lawsuit under the Texas statute of limitations, or else forever lose their right to recovery.

Resources

Houston's Animal Shelter and Adoption Facility is conveniently called BARC. They can help you find lost pets, license your animal, and will notify you if your licensed animal was picked up. Also, check out their guide to responsible pet ownership. For more information, visit FindLaw's section on dog bites.

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