Liability for Dog Bites under Pennsylvania Law

Our law firm recently handled a serious dog attack on a young child in Pennsylvania. Each jurisdiction we encounter throughout the mid-atlantic region has different variances on the owner of a dog that causes personal injury. Pennsylvania law is slightly different than Maryland.

The Pennsylvania Code contains the regulations pertaining to dogs. Dog Laws are codified in Title 3, Chapter 8, of the Pennsylvania Code. The portion of the dog laws pertaining to dangerous dogs is codified in 3 P.S. § 459-501-A through § 459-507-A.
Under Pennsylvania Dog Law, the owner/keeper of any dog is required at all times to keep the dog either :
1. Confined within the premises of the owner
2. Firmly secured by means of a collar and chain or other device so that it cannot stray beyond the premises on which it is secured; or
3. Under the reasonable control of some person Pennsylvania Dog Law is the standard for determining whether a person has complied with the duty to exercise ordinary care. Unexcused violations constitute negligence per se. However, a violation of the Dog Law does not establish the necessary causation for a finding of liability. Liability does not attach unless the violation is a substantial factor is bringing about the injuries sustained. Villaume v. Kaufman, 379 Pa. Super. 561, 550 A.2d 793 (1988), aff’g Miller v. Hurst, 302 Pa. Super. 235, 448 A.2d 614 (1982).

Title 3 P.S. Ch. 8 §459-502-A states that the owner or keeper of a dog shall be guilty of the offense of harbouring a dangerous dog if the magisterial district judge finds beyond a reasonable doubt the following elements have been proven:

1. The dog has done any of the following:
a. Inflicted severe injury on a human being without provocation on public or private property.
b. Killed or inflicted severe injury on a domestic animal, dog or cat without provocation while off the owner’s property
c. Attacked a human being without provocation
d. Been used in the commission of a crime

2. The dog has either or both of the following:

a. A history of attacking human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation b. A propensity to attack human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation. A propensity to attack may be proven by a single incident of the conduct described in paragraph (1)(a), (b), (c), or (d).

3. Defendant is the owner or keeper of the dog.

The owner or keeper of any dog that, through the intentional, reckless, or negligent conduct of the dog’s owner or keeper, aggressively attacks and causes severe injury or death of any human shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree. In addition, the dog shall immediately be confiscated by a State dog warden or a police officer and placed in quarantine for a length of time to be determined by the Department of Agriculture or the Department of Health. After 10 days, if no appeal has been filed by the dog’s owner, the dog is humanely destroyed. If an appeal is filed and the owner is found guilty of the cited offense, the dog will be humanely destroyed.

The two cases most widely relied upon are Miller v. Hurst, 302 Pa. Super. 235, 448 A.2d 614 (1982) and Commonwealth v. Hake 738 A.2nd 46 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1999). In Miller, the court held that an unexcused violation of the Dog Law is negligence per se. In footnote 8, however, the court noted that no negligence would be found in cases where the dog escaped despite the exercise of due care. Id. at. 619. In Hake, the court held that the 1996 amendments to the dog laws no longer require that the dog be found specifically dangerous. Hake, 736 A.2d at 48. Furthermore, the amendments specifically provide that the propensity to attack may be proven by a single incident of the infliction of severe injury or attack on a human being, clearly permitting a finding of a “propensity” to attack human beings, even where the attack in question is the first such attack. Id. at 49.

In Commonwealth v. Austin, the State was not required to prove that the victim sustained serious injuries before the defendant, who was the owner of the dog, could be found guilty of harboring a dangerous dog. The victim, who was a neighbor of the dog owner, was walking on a rear section of her property when the dog lunged at her and bit her leg. Nothing in the statute governing offense of harboring a dangerous dog required that injury from a single incident be severe, for purposes of establishing offense, but only that a single incident showed the propensity of the dog to attack humans as deduced from the nature of the attack. Commonwealth. v. Austin, 846 A.2d 798 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2004). See also 3 P.S. Ch. 8 §459-502-A.

For more information on dog bite cases and other injury matters, please contact us for a free consultation.

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