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Pennsylvania Law for Dog Bites

If you or a loved one was bitten or attacked by a dog and seriously injured as a result, then contact a personal injury attorney at Alva Foster & Moscow, LLC to discuss your case. Our attorneys are experienced in filing and litigating negligence claims against the dog's owners or others that were negligent. We help our clients recover financial compensation for their injuries and suffering.

In certain cases, claims can also be brought against other negligent owners such as the owner of the business where the attack took place or the landlord of the premises. In addition to statutory violations, the dog bite victim may also rely on common-law principles to establish liability. Many of these cases also involve actions against the dog owner for harboring a dangerous dog under 3 P.S. § 459–503–A.

Overview of Dog Bite Law

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Definition of Dangerous or Vicious Propensity

Generally, in negligence actions arising from the conduct of dogs, the animal's owner is the person responsible for injuries to others caused by his or her dog. Under Pennsylvania law, however, the law does not impose absolute liability upon dog owners for injuries caused by the dog. Instead, some proof of the owner's negligence is required.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has defined a dangerous or vicious propensity broadly. Pennsylvania law defines the term “dangerous dog” as “a dog determined to be a dangerous dog under section 502-A.”

Section 502-A provides that “[a]ny person who has been attacked by one or more dogs, or anyone on behalf of the person, a person whose domestic animal, dog or cat has been killed or injured without provocation, the state dog warden or the local police officer may file a complaint before a magisterial district judge charging the owner or keeper of the dog with harboring a dangerous dog.”

The Court has held that a dangerous propensity includes “a propensity or tendency of an animal to do any act that might endanger the safety of the person and property of others in a given situation.” Groner v. Hedrick, 403 Pa. 148, 169 A.2d 302, 303 (1961); see also Restatement (Second) of Torts § 518(1)).

The courts in Pennsylvania have recognized that a large overly-friendly dog that jumps onto people may be as dangerous as a vicious one because the "law makes no distinction between an animal dangerous from viciousness and one merely mischievous or dangerous from playfulness.” Id. Instead, the animal's motivation or “the mood in which it inflicts harm is immaterial.” Id.

Section 102 of the Dog Law defines “attack” as the “deliberate action of a dog, whether or not in response to a command by its owner, to bite, to seize with its teeth or to pursue any human or domestic animal.” 3 P.S. § 459–102.

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Dog Bites under Pennsylvania's Section 502

Pennsylvania Dog Laws dealing with dog bites is found in Section 502, entitled "Offenses of Dogs." Under Section 502, if a dog bites or attacks a human being then the dog is "to be confined in quarters approved by a designated employee of the Department of Health, a State dog warden or employee of the Department of Agriculture, an animal control officer or a police officer . . . for a minimum of ten days.” 3 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 459-502 (2009).

Additionally, "the investigating officer is responsible for notifying the bite victim of the medical results of the offending dog’s confinement such as whether the dog is under quarantine and whether it shows signs of an infection with the rabies virus. The cost of medical treatment for the bite or attack must be paid by the owner or keeper of the dog.

The confinement requirement does not apply to service dogs and police dogs that bite or attack in the line of duty when the dog is also “under the active supervision of a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine.”

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Negligence Actions Against the Landlord

In most cases, the landlord is not liable for a dog bite because a cause of action in negligence cannot be established. In order to establish a cause of action in negligence against a landlord for injuries caused by the tenant's dog, the plaintiff must prove that the landlord owed a duty of care, that the landlord breached that duty, and that the injuries were proximately caused by the breach

If the landlord is out of possession of the property, then he or she is not liable for attacks by animals kept by the tenant on leased premises where the tenant has exclusive control over the premises. Instead, the landlord has a duty to use reasonable care which will attach to prevent such injuries if the landlord has knowledge of a dangerous animal on the rented premises and if the landlord enjoyed the right to control or remove the animal by retaking the premises. Palermo v. Nails, 334 Pa.Super. 544, 483 A.2d 871 (1984) (the court found a duty on the part of the landlord arising from her actual knowledge of the dog's vicious propensities and her almost exclusive control over the premises).

Actual knowledge of a dog's dangerous propensities is required before a duty is imposed upon a landlord to protect against or remove an animal housed on rental property. See Underwood ex rel. Underwood v. Wind, 954 A.2d 1199 (Pa.Super.2008) (the court notes that the landlord's actual knowledge of the dog's dangerous propensities was a prerequisite to imposition of a duty).

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Harboring a Dangerous Dog

“The owner or keeper of the dog shall be guilty of the summary offense of harboring a dangerous dog if the magisterial district judge finds beyond a reasonable doubt that the following elements of the offense have been proven:

(1) the dog has done any of the following:

(i) inflicted severe injury on a human being without provocation on public or private property;

(ii) killed or inflicted severe injury on a domestic animal, dog or cat without provocation while off the owner’s property;

(iii) attacked a human being without provocation;

(iv) been used in the commission of a crime.

(2) the dog has either or both of the following:

(i) a history of attacking human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation;

(ii) a propensity to attack human beings and/or domestic animals, dogs or cats without provocation (this may be proven by a single incident of the conduct described in (1)(i), (ii), (iii), or (iv)); and

(3) the defendant is the owner or keeper of the dog.”

Result of a Conviction for Harboring a Dangerous Dog

If the magisterial judge finds the person guilty of harboring a dangerous dog, then the dog is thereby classified as a dangerous dog for the purpose of the statute. As a practical matter, however, a finding that the dog is a "dangerous dog" is essentially a death sentence for the dog because the requirements are cost prohibitive for most owners.

After a determination that the dog is dangerous, then the “Certification of Registration” requirement under 502-A take effect. The 502-A requirements provide:

“it is unlawful for an owner or keeper to have a dangerous dog without a certificate of registration issued under [article V-I].”

Section 503-A also provides for several requirements to obtain the “Certificate of Registration” 30 days after the owner is notified of the dogs status as a dangerous dog. Those requirements include:

  • registering the dog;
  • confining the dog;
  • posting warning signs on the premises;
  • paying court-ordered restitution to the victim of a dangerous dog;
  • having a microchip implanted in the dangerous dog;
  • spaying or neutering the dog;
  • obtaining and maintaining liability insurance;
  • paying a $500 registration fee for a dangerous dog certificate each calendar year for the life of the dog; and
  • other requirements.

Control of the Dangerous Dog

Pennsylvania law also provides for penalties for the failure to comply with the requirements in Section 504-A of the Pennsylvania Dangerous Dog Act.

The law provides that “it is unlawful for an owner or keeper of a dangerous dog to permit the dog to be outside the proper enclosure unless the dog is muzzled and restrained by a substantial chain or leash and under physical restraint of a responsible person.”

Additionally, Section 504-A requires that the muzzle "shall be made in a manner that will not cause injury to the dog or interfere with its vision or respiration but shall prevent it from biting any person or animal or from destroying property with its teeth.”

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Criminal Penalties for Failure to Comply

Section 505-A provides for criminal penalties for not complying with the requirements of the of the Dangerous Dog Act or for a subsequent attack by the dangerous dog.

Section 505-A subsection (a) provides that the owner or keeper of a dangerous dog . . . commits a misdemeanor of the third degree if:

  1. the dangerous dog is not validly registered under [Act V-A];
  2. the owner or keeper of the dangerous dog fails to comply with the provisions of section 503-A or 504-A;
  3. the dangerous dog is not maintained in the proper enclosure;
  4. the dangerous dog is outside of the dwelling of the owner or keeper of outside of the proper enclosure and not under physical restraint of the responsible person;
  5. the dog is outside the dwelling of the owner without a muzzle, regardless of whether the dog is physically restrained by a leash; or
  6. the dog is outside the dwelling of the owner or a proper enclosure without a muzzle and unsupervised, regardless of whether the dog is physically restrained by a leash.

A subsequent violation under Section 505-A subsection (a) is classified as a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable by “a fine not to exceed $5,000, plus the costs of quarantine, kennel charges and destruction of the dangerous dog.”

Also, upon the second or subsequent violation, the dog is forfeited immediately to be placed in a kennel or quarantined. After 10 days, if no appeal has been filed and the necessary quarantine period has elapsed, the dangerous dog shall be destroyed humanely in an expeditious manner.

If a dangerous dog attacks a person or a domestic animal, dog or cat, the dog owner or keeper can be charged with a misdemeanor of the second degree. If the attack causes severe injury or death the owner or keeper can be charged with a misdemeanor of the first degree.

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The First Bite: A Single Incident Can Establish the Dog's Dangerous Propensity

A single incident can establish a dog's propensity to attack human beings as deduced from the nature of the attack. It is not necessary to show a history of attack. There is no requirement that the injury from the single incident be severe in order to show a propensity of the dog to attack human beings, even if it is only the first attack.

Exemption for Prosecution under Section 502-A(c)

Pennsylvania law provides for an exempt from prosecution under Section 502–A(c). This section provides “[i]t is unlawful for an owner or keeper to have a dangerous dog without a certificate of registration issued under this article.” 3 P.S. § 459.502–A(c). Section 502–A(c) continues: “This article shall not apply to dogs used by law enforcement officials for police work, certified guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf nor aid dogs for the handicapped.”

The term “service dog” is defined in Section 102 as a dog trained or in the process of being trained “as a guide dog, signal dog” or “to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability.” 3 P.S. § 459–102.

The term “person with a disability” is defined in Section 102 as a person who:

  1. receives disability insurance or supplemental security income for the aged, blind or disabled under the Social Security Act (49 Stat. 620, 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq.);
  2. who receives a rent or property tax rebate under the act of March 11, 1971 (P.L. 104, No. 3), known as the “Senior Citizens Rebate and Assistance Act,” on account of disability;
  3. who has a disability certificate issued by the United States Veterans' Administration; or who has a special registration plate under 75 Pa.C.S. § 1338 (relating to person with disability plate and placard).?

A service dog can include a guide dog for the blind, a hearing dog for the deaf, or an aid dog for the handicapped. In order to qualify as a "service dog" the dog must be trained and/or certified by a recognized authority. See 3 P.S. § 459–102; 3 P.S. § 459.502–A(c).

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Owners Duty to Exercise Due Care to Preventing the Roving Dog

Section 459-305 prohibits an owner of any dog from failing to keep the dog at all times 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.

See 3 P.S. §459-305(a). This section of what is known as the “Dog Law” was enacted to protect against “personal injury, property damage and other hazards created by roving dogs.” Miller v. Hurst, 302 Pa. Super. 235, 243, 448 A.2d 614, 618 (1982) (overruled on other grounds).

An unexcused violation of section 459-305 constitutes negligence per se, but absolute liability is not imposed on a dog owner for damages caused by a roving dog. Id. at 245, 448 A.2d at 618-19. Liability will only attach where the violation of the Dog Law is a substantial factor in bringing about the injuries sustained. Id. at 245, 448 A.2d at 619. Normally, the trier of fact will determine whether the violation is a substantial factor in causing the injury. Id.

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Escape of the Dog Despite the Exercise of Due Care

“A dog owner may always show that his or her dog escaped despite the exercise of due care. In such cases, the roving of the dog would not constitute negligence.” Id. at 244 n.8, 448 A.2d at 619 n.8.

Whether an owner exercised due care despite the dog's escape is also a question for the trier of fact in certain circumstances. Villaume v. Kaufman, 379 Pa. Super. 561, 550 A.2d 793 (1988) (the court found that a jury may consider whether the precautions taken by a dog owner sufficiently confine or secure the dog so as to constitute the exercise of due care, provided there is prima facie evidence that the dog owner's precautions were insufficient).

Elements necessary to find a violation of section 502-A require proof that:

  1. the individual is the owner or keeper of the dog;
  2. the dog has committed one of four enumerated acts, one of which is attacking a human being without provocation;
  3. the dog has "either or both a history of attacking human beings and/or domestic animals without being provoked and/or a propensity to attack human beings without provocation, which may be proven by a single incident.”

Commonwealth v. Seyler, 929 A.2d 262, 266 (Pa. Commw. 2007). 

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Finding a Dog Bite Personal Injury Attorney in Philadephia, PA

If you or a loved one was bitten by a dog and seriously injured from the dog bite, then contact a personal injury attorney in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We represent clients throughout the entire state of Pennsylvania including Philadelpia and the surrounding areas of Bucks County, Chester County, Montgomery County and Delaware County, PA.