Massachusetts and Rhode Island Dog Bite Laws & Owner Liability

By: Attorney Kate A. Messinger | Associate

Each year, more than 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs. More than 800,000 receive medical attention for dog bites; at least half of them are children, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. In states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island hundreds of children and adults suffer injuries and even wrongful death after dog attacks. It is important to know that in most states dog owners can be held responsible if their pet attacks or injures another individual unprovoked. Many states have a “strict liability” statute which means dog owners are still liable for injuries their dogs cause even if the owner had no prior knowledge that the dog would bite or cause injury. In other words, someone who has been injured by a dog does not need to show fault on the part of the owner.

In Massachusetts, the legislature has expressed its strict intolerance regarding dog bites. The Massachusetts law holds a dog’s owner or “keeper” strictly liable for the victim’s injuries. Strict liability does not apply if at the time of the attack the victim was committing a trespass or other tort or was teasing, tormenting or abusing the dog. Unlike many states, Massachusetts also imposes strict liability on “keepers.” Keepers can include a veterinarian, a dog walker, a dog sitter, kennel or anyone in a position where they are in control of or responsible for a dog they do not own. The statute also states that if a victim is a minor under the age of seven at the time of the attack, the law presumes that the minor was not committing a trespass or tormenting or abusing the dog. The Massachusetts dog bite statute not only protects injuries from dog bites, but any injury a dog causes to another person, this could be tripping over a dog or an injury after a dog jumped up on a victim. The law also extends to property damage caused by dogs as well.

Rhode Island’s dog bite law differs from Massachusetts. In Rhode Island an owner is held strictly liable for injuries by a dog bite if the victim was bitten while the dog was outside of its “enclosure.” Rhode Island courts have interpreted this to be a, “fence, physical obstruction or any other condition that gives reasonable notice to third parties that the area is private.” But, if the dog bite occurs inside a dog’s enclosure, the victim must prove that the owner knew of the dog’s aggressive behavior and propensity for viciousness. Plaintiffs can prove this by showing evidence of prior attacks by the dog.

Being bitten or attacked by a dog can be a traumatic and life-changing event. Victims of dog bites or attacks frequently suffer serious injuries including permanent scarring, disfigurement and psychological trauma. Victims of these injuries can seek payment for losses and damages including: Medical bills, psychological services, temporary or permanent disability, lost wages, future earning capacity, cosmetic procedures or plastic surgery relating to scarring, and property damage.

When the owner or the keeper of the dog is a homeowner, they will usually be covered by their homeowner’s insurance policy. Generally, homeowner’s policies will pay personal injury claims against homeowners involving dog bites but many policies now have exceptions or specific exclusions and will not pay claims involving dog bites or attacks. As a homeowner and a dog owner it is important to review your policy to make sure you are protected. Depending on if the dog owner is a homeowner or is a keeper with a business we can help identify if a policy exists.

If you or a loved one is bitten or injured by a dog make sure you seek immediate medical treatment and report the attack to the police immediately. The attorneys at Wynn & Wynn, P.C. can help review your case and determine if you have a potential claim. Call our office today at 1-800-852-5211, or request your free consultation.