I’m a business and real estate litigator, but there are times when clients come to me with legal problems that are not about business or real estate, such as dog bites. I’ve successfully handled both criminal and civil dog bite cases. Many dog owners are surprised to learn about the potential consequences if their dog bites someone. I’ll briefly summarize.
1. Criminal Liability: Many municipalities have laws that prohibit the ownership of “vicious” dogs. For example, Birmingham has a local ordinance that provides “[n]o person shall own or harbor a fierce or vicious dog” and if a dog is found to be “vicious,” it “shall be destroyed,” pursuant to certain procedures and notice requirements. In addition to local ordinances, state statutes address the potential consequences of owning a dangerous animal. If an animal meets the definition of a dangerous animal and the animal causes an injury, the owner may be liable for a misdemeanor or a felony. If a death occurs, the owner may be liable for involuntary manslaughter. In 2017, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that to meet the definition of a “dangerous animal,” the prosecution must prove, among other things, the animal has previously bitten or attacked a person or dog and caused serious injury.
2. Civil Liability: Michigan also has a dog bite statute that provides an owner is liable for damages if the dog bites without provocation while the person is on public property or private property (lawfully). Unlike the criminal statute, the civil statute applies irrespective of dog’s viciousness or the owner’s knowledge of the dog’s viciousness. But the issues of provocation and the person’s right to be on private property are often hotly contested issues.
The above is not a complete or exhaustive summary of the law concerning dog bites. There are other potential claims and defenses not mentioned here that may apply. Moreover, the appropriate or best strategy will depend on the facts of each case. Thus, readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional advice. The Michigan Court of Appeals case referenced above is People v. Ridge, 319 Mich. App. 393; 901 N.W.2d 406 (2017).
Pictured above is Snoopy (photo credit: Mike Doerr).