Earlier this month, a 16-year-old boy was killed after he was attacked by three dogs in Irving, Texas. According to reports, the boy, who is believed to have been homeless, was trespassing in a fenced-in back yard early one Saturday morning

Three pit bulls, who were secured in the backyard, attacked the intruder. The owner claims that the dogs did not have a history of aggression, but were simply acting to protect the home.

The teen was rushed to an area hospital but did not survive his critical dog bite injuries. At least one officer was also injured while trying to stop the attack in progress.

In Texas, there are two potential ways to hold a dog owner responsible for injuries and harm caused by a dog attack: negligence and strict liability.

Dog Owners Can Be Liable If They’re Negligent

Anyone who owns a dog in Texas has a responsibility to care for the animal and prevent foreseeable harm. Failure to do this could be considered negligence.

Negligence occurs when:

  • A dog owner another person a duty of care
  • The owner that duty in some way
  • Another person suffers an injury
  • Because of the owner’s actions or failure to act.

How can an owner avoid accusations of negligence? This can be accomplished by keeping a dog on a leash, securing a dog in a fenced-in yard, and treating an animal with kindness so that it does not become vicious. Owners also have to step in an stop an attack in progress to avoid claims of negligence.

When an owner is negligent in the handling of a dog, they could potentially be financially responsible for harm caused by that dog. In this case, it wouldn’t matter if the dog had a history of being vicious or aggressive. The owner’s failure to care for the dog properly and protect others from an attack can be grounds for liability.

Example: Steve owns a rottweiler who has never shown any aggressive tendencies. However, Steve regularly allows his children to taunt the dog by climbing on him and pulling his ears and tail. Steve thinks it is cute and funny. One day, Steve takes the dog to a nearby dog park without a leash. The dog sees a small child running toward him, gets upset, and bites the child. Is Steve liable? He could be. He may be negligent for not using a leash and allowing the dog to be abused by his own children.

Texas Is a “One Bite” State; Owners Can Be Strictly Liable

Fourteen states in the nation, including Texas, have “one-bite” rules. A one-bite rule means that an owner is not automatically responsible for injuries caused by a dog’s very first attack. In Texas, an owner is only liable if they knew (or should reasonably have known) that a dog has a history of viciousness. A dog’s first bite usually doesn’t trigger liability for the owner unless the owner was negligent. In other words, the owner essentially gets one bite for free.

Once a dog has bitten someone, attempted to bite someone, or shown a propensity for viciousness, the owner is strictly liable for all future attacks. It doesn’t matter the lengths to which the owner goes to prevent an attack. The owner is liable because that dog has a history of aggression.

Example: Steve has a pit bull that’s never shown any aggressive tendencies. Steve doesn’t let his kids climb on the dog and he always keeps the animal secured in his fenced-in yard. One day, a teenage boy hops over the fence and begins to run toward the house. The dog becomes defensive and attacks the intruder. Is Steve liable for injuries caused by the dog attack? This is the dog’s first bite and there’s no history of aggression. Steve has taken care of the animal and taken steps to minimize an attack. Since Texas has a “one-bite” law, Steve probably isn’t liable.