Dog Bites and Arizona’s Confusing Statutory Law

Many people find having a pet a wonderful experience. Pets come in various shapes and sizes, from cuddly dogs and cats to unconventional choices like goats or snakes. Regardless of the type of pet you choose, owning one comes with significant responsibilities.

Dogs are the most common pet choice for most households. However, it’s essential to remember that regardless of the animal you decide to bring into your home, you’re accountable for its care and behavior. This responsibility includes feeding it, ensuring it’s clean and healthy, and, importantly, training it to behave appropriately. Failure to do so may make you liable for the injury caused by your pet.

For example, suppose a person’s dog bites someone while they are out for a walk. In that case, the dog owner may be held legally responsible for the victim’s medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, and other damages resulting from the bite, even if the dog has never shown aggressive behavior before and even if the owner took steps to train and restrain the dog.

Dog Bites and the Doctrine Of Strict Liability

One crucial aspect of pet ownership, particularly concerning dogs, is understanding the legal implications of ownership. In Arizona, for instance, there’s a law called the Dog Bite Statute. A statute is simply a law enacted by the state legislature.” What is important about Arizona’s Dog Bite Statute is that in some situations it makes the dog’s owner “strictly liable” for the injury and damage caused by their dog. (ARS 11-1025)

Understanding strict liability can be a bit tricky at first, but it’s an important concept to grasp. In simple terms, strict liability is a legal principle that holds someone responsible for the consequences of their actions, regardless of whether they intended harm or whether they were “at fault.” This principle applies not only to dog bite cases but also to various other situations, including cases involving certain “ultrahazardous” activities or products that pose a high risk of harm that are not relevant here.

In everyday language, strict liability in dog bite cases means that if a dog bites someone, its owner is on the hook for any harm caused unless the owner can prove one of a couple of possible defenses to the action.

For example, even if a dog owner tried everything to keep their dog from biting someone—chaining the dog behind a well-maintained fence and keeping the dog well-fed and happy—if the dog breaks free and bites someone, the owner is legally responsible for the damage caused by that bite. It doesn’t matter whether the owner was negligent or not; the law holds them accountable for their dog’s actions. This fact of Arizona law catches many pet owners by surprise – they can be liable without being at fault!

Along those same lines, I have heard from my friends in Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, or Phoenix that they believe there is something called the “one bite” rule regarding dogs and owner liability for dog bites. They believe a dog gets a free pass the first time it bites someone because the owner couldn’t have known about the dog’s aggressive tendencies until then. However, in cases where the owner is held “strictly liable” for the damage caused by the dog, the dog’s aggressive history doesn’t matter. The dog could be the sweetest, most likable animal ever, but the owner is still liable if it bites.

When in Doubt, Find and Read the Statute

If you doubt that someone can be liable to another person without being at fault, read Arizona Revised Statute 11-1025, which outlines this legal principle relating to owner liability for dog bites. Notice how our state legislature wrote this statute. It declared that a dog owner IS LIABLE for the damage suffered by the person who was bitten. This is what we mean by “strict liability” in dog bite cases: the owner is held accountable for the injury, regardless of any other factors:

A. The owner of a dog that bites a person when the person is in or on a public place or lawfully in or on a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, is liable for damages suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of its viciousness.

B. The breed of a dog may not be considered in findings of facts or conclusions of law entered by a court, administrative law judge, hearing officer, arbitrator or other legal decision-maker regarding whether a dog is aggressive or vicious or has created liability.

As you can see, this statute only applies if the injured person is “in or on a public place OR lawfully in or on a private place…” This means that if someone is trespassing, meaning that they are not lawfully in or on a place (for example, burglarizing the owner’s home) or in a public space (like a sidewalk), the statute does not apply. Strict liability is gone as a theory of recovery for the injured person.

But what if the person who got bitten was actually in a place where they were allowed to be when the bite occurred? Does the dog owner have any defense in such a situation? Yes, there is still hope for the dog owner. Though proving innocence can be challenging, Arizona law offers a defense if the owner can show that the person who was bitten provoked the dog.

If the injured person provoked the attack, the dog owner might not be held entirely accountable for the injury. This defense is recognized in Arizona Revised Statute 11-1027, which explains:

Proof of provocation of the attack by the person injured shall be a defense to the action for damages. The issue of provocation shall be determined by whether a reasonable person would expect that the conduct or circumstances would be likely to provoke a dog.

To put it simply, if someone does something that a normal person would expect to upset a dog and that action causes the dog to bite, the dog’s owner might not be held accountable for the harm.

For instance, if the dog owner can prove that the bite victim repeatedly teased or threatened a dog until it reacted by biting, the owner could argue that the victim’s actions provoked the dog’s response. In that factual situation, the owner may not be liable for any of the damage caused by the bite.

Notice who has the burden of proof—the defendant (the owner). One result of the application of the “strict liability” doctrine is that it shifts the burden of proof to explain why something happened from the plaintiff (the victim) to the defendant (the dog owner). Additionally, the level of provocation required to absolve the owner of liability may vary depending on the specific circumstances and the laws of the jurisdiction where the incident occurred. In Arizona, the standard is “whether a reasonable person would expect that the conduct or circumstances would be likely to provoke a dog.” Remember that from ARS 11-1027 above?

Are there other defenses? Yes, but they are very fact-specific; these defenses are found at ARS 11-1025 (C)(1) through (4). For example, a person who was bitten by a dog owned by a governmental agency using a dog in military or police work cannot sue for damages if the dog was being provoked OR if

• The dog was used by the employees of the governmental agency to apprehend or hold a suspect if there was reasonable suspicion to believe that the bitten person was involved in criminal activity;

• If the bite happened while the governmental employee was investigating a crime or a possible crime;

• If the bite occurred during the execution of a search warrant;

• Or, if the dog was defending a peace officer or another person.

One could only imagine the outrage if a criminal was allowed to sue the police department for dog bite injuries while being arrested!

What if it’s the Dog That Is Somewhere It Does Not Belong? Does a Runaway Dog Still Mean Strict Liability against the Owner? Yes.

Now, what if it’s the dog that was in a place where it shouldn’t be? Dogs roaming freely around neighborhoods and streets in Arizona are often referred to as being “at large.” Not all dogs have owners, but as we’ve seen from the countless flyers stapled to light poles, many dogs run away from home. And as you might have guessed, there’s a law to address this situation.

ARS 11-1020 provides that if a dog breaks away from its owner, who is therefore nowhere around the dog when or if it bites someone, strict liability still applies: “Injury to any person or damage to any property by a dog while at large shall be the full responsibility of the dog owner or person or persons responsible for the dog when such damages were inflicted.”

It is no defense to say, “The dog ran away, and I had no control over his behavior at the time it bit the plaintiff. If I had been there, this never would have happened.” At least, not in Arizona.

It is also not a defense to say, “I just took the dog in and was taking care of it for the rightful owner.” Once you make yourself responsible for the dog, you are liable as well. I know a lot of people are surprised by that!

There’s Always a Twist In the Law There are TWO Statutes of Limitations that Apply to Dog Bite Cases

As you might recall, in the State of Arizona, including cities like Gilbert, Mesa, Chandler, Phoenix, and Scottsdale, the Statute of Limitations for personal injury cases is typically two years. This essentially means that if you suffer an injury in Arizona, the law requires you to either settle your injury claim or file a lawsuit against the responsible party within two years from the date of the injury. (This is found in Arizona Revised Statute 12-542.)

That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Let’s break it down. If you happen to get injured, say on January 1, 2023, according to the statute, you’ll need to either settle your injury claim or file a lawsuit against the responsible parties on or about December 31, 2025. If you miss this deadline, your claim is essentially extinguished. Why? Well, simply put, no court in Arizona would have the authority to hear your case after this point. And if the court can’t hear your case, there’s no real incentive for the defendant to settle because they can’t be sued anymore.

In the law, it is never quite that simple.

Understanding the legal system can be daunting, but it’s crucial if you’re considering filing a claim for compensation. Missing key details could result in losing your chance to receive reimbursement for medical bills and pain and suffering. It’s important to note that simply being injured doesn’t always guarantee that you’ll have two years to file a lawsuit, as there may be other factors to consider.

Now, let’s get to the fascinating part. In Arizona, as in most states, there are two primary legal claims: common law and statutory. Common law claims have evolved over time through court decisions and interpretations and have a rich history dating back centuries. Statutory claims, on the other hand, are created by the state legislature through statutes. These laws provide clear guidelines and rules for various aspects of the law, including personal injury cases.

When you’re injured, you may have a common law or statutory claim or both at the same time. For example, dog bite cases in Arizona fall under both types of claims.

Let me explain:

The “Strict Liability” claim, as outlined in Arizona Revised Statute 11-2025, holds the dog owner responsible regardless of fault. This kind of claim didn’t exist until the legislature created it. Before that, there was only the common law claim of “negligence.” In a negligence claim, the owner would be held accountable if the plaintiff, the injured person, could prove the dog owner did something wrong that led to the dog bite, for example, failing to secure the dog or maintain it in an appropriately enclosed environment, such as a well-maintained fence.

If an injured person needs to file a lawsuit against a dog owner, they can do so by alleging two counts, or “causes of action,” in their complaint. The first is a cause of action in negligence based on common law principles, and the second is a cause of action alleging strict liability based on ARS 11-2025. The plaintiff doesn’t have to choose between the two; they can pursue both theories in the same lawsuit. However, they have to include all their theories of recovery in a single lawsuit, which can be complicated.

Now, here’s where things get even trickier.

Arizona Revised Statute 12-541 states that if your claim, or “cause of action,” is based on a liability created by statute, the statute of limitations is only one year after the cause of action arises. This means that if you’re pursuing a legal claim based on a statute, you have only one year to file a lawsuit after the incident.

One year? Why? Who knows, and who cares? What it means is if the legislature creates a legal claim through a statute, like the “strict liability” cause of action for dog bites, you only have one year to act.

But wait a minute – isn’t the general statute of limitations for personal injury claims two years? So, what gives?

It seems like there’s a conflict here, right? Well, this is the law, not reality, so you have to deal with the rules as they are. Let’s try to untangle this spider’s web of laws and figure out what it all means.

Here’s the breakdown: As I previously stated, when you take legal action against someone, you’re not restricted to just one legal claim. You can bring forth multiple claims to seek compensation for the same incident. However, the courts carefully evaluate each claim separately to ensure they have the authority to address them.

When it comes to legal claims involving dogs, we know there are two causes of action: negligence and strict liability. Each of these claims has a different statute of limitations. The general two-year statute of limitations found in ARS 12-542 applies to the negligence count. This means that if you’re pursuing a legal claim based on negligence, you have two years to file a lawsuit after the incident.

On the other hand, the strict liability count has a different statute of limitations. Since the strict liability claim is based upon a statute, ARS 12-541 applies, so you have only one year to file a lawsuit after the incident. It’s crucial to keep these statutes of limitations in mind when pursuing legal action and to act promptly to gain your greatest advantage in court.

Here is how it all works:

Picture a scenario where someone is suing over a dog bite injury. Let’s call them Plaintiff A. If Plaintiff A files their lawsuit within one year of the injury, they can pursue BOTH “Strict Liability” and negligence claims. This is significant because if “strict liability” applies, Plaintiff A doesn’t have to prove fault on the dog owner’s part. Even if the strict liability claim doesn’t hold up, Plaintiff A still has the negligence claim as a fallback option.

Now, let’s consider Plaintiff B, who waits to file their lawsuit until after one year but before two years from the injury date. In this case, Plaintiff B loses the “strict liability” claim but can proceed with the common law negligence claim. However, proving fault with the negligence claim can be more complex and time-consuming.

Lastly, let’s look at Plaintiff C, who waits to file their lawsuit until two years after the injury date. Unfortunately, in this scenario, the court will dismiss the case because it lacks jurisdiction to rule on the matter, meaning Plaintiff C loses out.

Unscrupulous insurance adjusters may try to drag a claim out into the second year just to eliminate the strict liability claim. When this happens, it is because the injured person either wasn’t represented by an experienced attorney or their lawyer did not know about the two different statutes of limitations. Both happen from time to time.

In conclusion, in dog bite cases, you have at least two potential paths to seek compensation and two different deadlines to keep in mind. It’s usually best to file within the first year to take advantage of the “strict liability” claim—it’s the simpler option.