Your liability as a pet owner

By: Rudman Winchell Attorney John Hamer, Esq.

According to the American Pet Products Association, there are approximately 78.2 million dogs living in the U.S., and 39% of U.S. households have at least one dog.  While the vast majority of dogs live happy, litigation-free lives, insurance companies paid nearly $1,136 million in claims related to dogs in 2023. (See “Dog Bite Statistics By Breed You Need to Know About in 2023“, World Animal Foundation, Dec 9, 2023).

If a person is attacked, bitten, or otherwise injured by a dog, there are a variety of claims that may be asserted by the injured party. The purpose of this blog is to discuss a two of the more prevalent claims, but it is by no means a complete list of possible claims.

First, under 7 M.R.S.A. § 3961(1), an owner or keeper of an animal (this is not limited to dogs, so cat owners take note) may be held liable for harm the animal does to a person as the result of the owner or keeper’s negligence if the harm was not occasioned through the fault of the person injured.  If the owner or keeper fails to use reasonable care under the circumstances to prevent the harm and the person injured is not at fault, the owner or keeper may be held liable.  Furthermore, if the animal in question is a dog and the incident occurs off the owner or keeper’s property, then § 3961(2) provides that the owner or keeper will be held liable and the fault of the person injured is not a defense unless the fault of the person injured exceeds the fault of the dog’s owner or keeper.

For the purposes of both of these remedies, an “owner” is a “person owning, keeping or harboring a dog or other animal” and a “keeper” is a “person in possession or control of a dog or other animal.”  7 M.R.S.A. § 3907.  To be a keeper, one must have “care, custody and control” of a dog.  Parrish v. Wright, 2003 ME 90, 828 A.2d 778.

Second, under § 509 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which was adopted in Maine in the case of Young v. Proctor, 495 A.2d 828 (Me. 1985), a person who possesses a domestic animal (again, this is not limited to dogs) “that he knows or has reason to know has dangerous propensities abnormal to its class” will be held liable for harm done by the dog even though the person exercised “the utmost care to prevent it from doing the harm.”  Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 509.  However, “liability is limited to harm that results from the abnormally dangerous propensity of which the possessor knows or has reason to know.”  Id.  There is no definition of “possessor”, but it is likely to be construed to have the same meaning as “keeper.”

Speaking for experience, having a dog can be great.  However, responsible dog ownership means understanding the possible liability that may accompany having a dog and preventing the dog from harming others.

For information regarding adopting an animal and other useful animal links, please see:

Bangor Humane Society  http://www.bangorhumane.org