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Defending Dog Bite Cases: Strategies & Defenses Explained

Updated: Sep 14, 2023


Dog bite cases can be legally complex, as they involve various liability standards and laws that vary from state to state. If you are a dog owner facing a civil lawsuit related to a dog bite incident, understanding the available defenses is crucial. In this article, we will explore effective strategies and defenses that can help you defend yourself in a dog bite case, including disproving the plaintiff's case and asserting affirmative defenses.

Thorough Investigation for Effective Defense

At BDL, we pride ourselves on conducting comprehensive investigations into dog bite claims. We go beyond what insurers typically do, employing a team of investigators, trainers, behaviorists, veterinarians, and claims adjusters to uncover the truth. By considering numerous factors and facts surrounding the incident, we can determine liability and assess the appropriate level of damages. Our dedication to thorough investigation sets us apart and allows us to build strong defenses.

Disproving the Plaintiff's Case

Understanding Dog Owner Liability Rules

Dog bite cases involve different liability standards that vary by state. It is important to know the specific rules in your jurisdiction to determine the best defense strategy. The two main liability standards are strict liability and one-bite or negligence standards. Massachusetts is a strict liability state, meaning the dog’s owner is responsible for any harm the dog does to people or property, and the victim does not have to prove negligence to receive compensation.

Strict Liability

Some states have adopted strict liability laws, which means that dog owners are held liable for injuries caused by their dogs regardless of the dog's history or the owner's negligence. Under strict liability, the plaintiff does not need to prove that the owner was negligent or aware of the dog's dangerous tendencies.

One-Bite or Negligence Standard

Other states operate under a one-bite or negligence standard. In these states, the plaintiff must prove that the dog owner was negligent in controlling or handling the dog or had knowledge of its dangerous propensities. This requires establishing that the owner knew or should have known that the dog had a tendency to bite or attack.

Disproving the Plaintiff's Case in Strict Liability States

In strict liability states like Massachusetts, it can be challenging to disprove the plaintiff's case. However, there are some strategies that can be employed to defend against a dog bite claim and reduce the amount of compensation a bite victim may be entitled to

Proving Provocation

Arguing that the plaintiff provoked the dog before the bite can be an effective defense. Evidence of provocation may include the plaintiff's aggressive behavior towards the dog, such as hitting, taunting, or threatening it. Some states allow the provocation defense, shifting the burden of proof to the plaintiff to demonstrate that no provocation occurred.

Establishing Trespassing

If the plaintiff was trespassing on the owner's property at the time of the incident, the owner may not be held liable in many states. Dog bite statutes often require the injured person to be "lawfully on the property" for the owner to bear responsibility. Providing evidence that the plaintiff was trespassing can be a strong defense.

Disproving the Plaintiff's Case in One-Bite or Negligence States

In states that follow the one-bite or negligence standard, defendants can challenge the plaintiff's case by undermining the strength of their evidence. Strategies to disprove the plaintiff's case may include:

Witness Credibility

Questioning the credibility of witnesses can be crucial in undermining the plaintiff's case. This may involve identifying inconsistencies or contradictions in their testimonies or demonstrating potential bias or lack of firsthand knowledge.

Lack of Proof of Negligence

The plaintiff must establish that the dog owner was negligent in controlling or handling the dog or had knowledge of its dangerous tendencies. Defendants can challenge the plaintiff's ability to prove negligence by highlighting any gaps or lack of evidence supporting their claims.

Affirmative Defenses

In addition to disproving the plaintiff's case, defendants can assert affirmative defenses to counter the dog bite claim. These defenses aim to shift the blame or liability away from the defendant.

The Defendant Did Not Own/Control the Dog

One defense strategy is to show that the defendant did not have ownership or control of the dog during the incident. If it can be demonstrated that the defendant was not the owner or had no responsibility for controlling the dog at the time of the bite, they may be able to avoid liability.

The Plaintiff Was Negligent

Asserting comparative negligence can be an effective defense. This defense argues that the plaintiff's own negligence contributed to the incident and resulting injuries. If the court determines that the plaintiff's actions were partially responsible for the bite, it may reduce the defendant's liability or bar recovery altogether. This defense is not available under the Massachusetts dog bite statute.

Assumption of Risk

This defense asserts that the plaintiff knowingly assumed the risk of being bitten by the dog. It requires demonstrating that the plaintiff was aware of the dog's dangerous tendencies or the potential risks involved and voluntarily chose to encounter the dog despite that knowledge.

This defense is not available under the Massachusetts dog bite statute.

Additional Tips for Dog Owners:

Prevention is key when it comes to avoiding dog bites. As a responsible pet owner, consider the following guidelines:

  • Do not leave dogs outside unattended.

  • Keep your dog properly restrained with appropriate equipment and fencing.

  • Install a gate inside the house at the front door to prevent your dog from rushing out.

  • Avoid using retractable leashes, as they may reduce control over your dog.

  • Train your dog to respond to basic commands such as "sit, stay, heal, and come."

  • In case of an incident, take immediate photos of the scene, your dog, and any injuries sustained by the victim or their dog.

Importance of Legal Assistance

If you have insurance coverage, you may choose to make a claim through your insurer. They will typically request a written and possibly recorded statement, provide an attorney to assist you, and handle any necessary payouts. However, it is advisable to consult with an attorney to ensure that all defenses are raised and considered throughout the process.

For uninsured dog owners or those whose coverage has been denied, seeking legal representation is crucial. While there are many lawyers who represent bite victims, there are few who specialize in defending dog bite cases. At Boston Dog Lawyers, we are part of a nationwide network of attorneys with the expertise to handle the defense side of dog bite cases.


Defending yourself in a dog bite case requires a solid understanding of the applicable laws and effective defense strategies. By disproving the plaintiff's case through strategies such as proving provocation or establishing trespassing, and by asserting affirmative defenses like lack of ownership/control, comparative negligence, or assumption of risk, dog owners can strengthen their position in defending against dog bite claims. Consultation with a knowledgeable attorney is crucial to navigate the legal complexities and protect your rights and interests in dog bite cases.

The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice.

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