Be a responsible dog owner – know your liability

posted May 6, 2014, 2:49 PM by Helen Partlow   [ updated May 6, 2014, 2:50 PM ]

As a dog owner and lover, I can appreciate all of the good and bad things that come with dog ownership.  They give you companionship like no other, and can love you unconditionally with all your faults.  They become a member of the family and you treasure your time together.  If your dog tends to be aggressive with either people and/or or animals, it is best to be cautioned of the potential liability that you may occur if your dog attacks someone or causes damage to another’s property.

Massachusetts General Laws Ch. 140, §155, details such liability.  The owner/keeper is liable for all damage done to property or to a person.  The exception to the rule is that if the person that the dog “attacks” has tormented or abused the dog, or if the person is trespassing on property, then the dog’s owner will be released of liability.

The law recognizes that if the owner or keeper is a minor, they are still liable for any damage done. If damage occurs due to trespassing, and the person is a minor under the age of seven (7), then an exception to the rule takes force and it is assumed that this minor is not actually trespassing or abusing the dog due to its young age.  This would then shift the burden of proof to the defendant if such facts exist.

But how are these damages measured?

In Irwin v. Degtiarov, a case that was heard in April 2014, an unleashed German Shepard attacked a Bichon Frise with extensive damage to the dog’s head, neck, abdomen and chest.  The veterinarian bills amounted to over $8,000.00, which was more than the dog itself. 

The question then became if the damages should have been capped at the value of the dog or if the German Shepard’s owner was liable for all damages, even those that far exceeded the Bichon’s value.  The court found that the statute itself did not give much direction as to how to measure the damage done and therefore had to look at common law to find an answer.  “Although the common law considers dogs to be property”… “it has never limited recovery for animals that are injured (but not immediately killed) to diminution in market value.”  It is a dog owner’s proper duty to give reasonable care an attention to their dog, especially if it is severely injured.  The expense is part of the damage to the owner, for which he may sue to recover.