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If a child provokes a dog into biting, is the owner liable?

On Behalf of | Feb 21, 2023 | Injuries, Premises Liability

Most children love animals, including dogs. They want to pet a dog or play with a dog, even if it is a dog they do not know.

Still, the natural curiosity of a child may be too much for even a mild-mannered dog to handle, and the dog might bite the child. Does this mean that the child provoked the dog into biting? And should dog owners be held legally responsible for their dog’s actions in such cases?

Dog bite laws in Massachusetts

In general, a dog owner will be strictly liable if their dog bites someone. This means that the dog owner does not need to be aware that their dog had dangerous propensities in order to be held responsible for a bite. After all, even mild-mannered family pets can bite out of fear, protection or playfulness.

Strict liability means that, to prove negligence in a legal action, duty and breach are implied. It is taken as an automatic fact that the dog owner had a duty to stop their dog from biting, and the dog bite serves as proof that this duty was breached. All that is left to prove is that the bite caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

There are a couple of exceptions to strict liability for dog bites. One is if the plaintiff was trespassing on the dog owner’s property. A second is if the plaintiff was provoking the dog.

Dog bites and children

interestingly enough, the exceptions to dog-bite liability do not apply to children under age seven. Children under age seven are not expected to understand what it means to trespass. Moreover, they may not understand how their curious or playful actions might provoke a dog.

Children under age seven are naturally attracted to animals, including dogs. They may approach a strange dog simply because they want to pet it, or they may play too rough with a friendly dog. Thus, the dog owner will still be strictly liable if their dog bites and injures a young child, even if the child was trespassing or inadvertently provoking the dog.