A guide to dog bite law in the UK
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If someone is injured as a result of a dog bite or dog attack then there are usually two possible ways of making a claim for compensation.
The first involves the Animals Act 1971 and the second involves alleging that the dog owner has been negligent.
Animals Act 1971
The Animals Act 1971 is a very complex and often confusing piece of law. It sets out the circumstances in which the dog’s “keeper” (defined in the Act as the owner or person in possession of an animal) can be held responsible for the actions of their dog. The Act is confusing because over the years different judges have interpreted it in different ways and it is therefore sometimes a little difficult for victims of dog bites to know exactly where they stand.
One of the most important and controversial interpretations is that the Animal Act imposes “strict liability” on the keeper of a dog for its’ actions. This means that someone can be held responsible for an injury caused by their dog regardless of whether or not they themselves are at fault. This interpretation of the law was decided following a case where a horse got out a field and onto a motorway where it collided with a car, the owners were found to blame even though they had kept the horse secure and had done nothing wrong. Even though this case involved a horse the law applies just the same for dogs.
Section 2 (2) of the Act sets out a three stage test which needs to be satisfied before strict liability can attach:
Where damage is caused by an animal which does not belong to a dangerous species, a keeper of the animal is liable for the damage, except as otherwise provided by this Act, if –
- the damage is of a kind which the animal, unless restrained, was likely to cause or which, if caused by the animal, was likely to be severe; and
- the likelihood of the damage or of it being severe was due to the characteristics of the animal which are not normally found in animals of the same species or are not normally so found except at particular times or in particular circumstances; and
- those characteristics were known to that keeper or were at any time known to a person who at the time had charge of the animal as that keeper’s servant…
According to the Act the damage caused by a dog therefore has to be (a) Likely and (b) caused by a characteristic of the dog which was (c) known about by the defendant.
(a) Likely to cause damage
Was the dog likely to cause the damage? In order to prove this it would be necessary to show for example, that a dog had a history of biting people. Secondly was the damage done likely to be severe? The answer to this will depend on the specific facts, but taking the case of a dog biting a child there is usually a strong argument that damage was likely to be severe.
(b) Caused by a characteristic of the animal
The first part of this section deals with unusual animals. This doesn’t mean exotic animals that you wouldn’t normally expect to encounter, but instead if the dog in question is unusual in some way because it was unusually prone to bite or particularly aggressive. The second part of section (b) relates to normal characteristics of the species only displayed at particular times or in particular circumstances. Biting is a classic example of this type of behaviour. All normal dogs are capable of biting but will only do so in particular circumstances. Sometimes an expert in animal behaviour will need to be asked to deal with this point, but where a dog bites someone in particular circumstance i.e. the dog was frightened by being stroked and bit then this is the type of behaviour which is covered by the Act.
(c) Known about by the Defendant
The final section deals with the knowledge of the keeper. Does an owner know that a dog will bite in particular circumstances? If so then this section of the Act will apply.
Defences to the Animals Act
Obviously dog bite law is not as straightforward as saying, “Your animal bit me and therefore you’re legally responsible.” The Act offers defences to the strict liability finding. It is a defence for instance that the person injured was either totally or partially at fault for what happened, or if they voluntarily accepted the risk of injury. It could also be a defence if they were trespassing at the time and the animal that attacked them wasn’t being kept on the premises to guard them.
Allegations of Negligence
As an animal’s keeper a potential Defendant owes a “duty of care” to people who may come into contact with that animal. If they don’t do all that they should or do something that they shouldn’t and their animal injures someone then it is said that they have “breached their duty” and have been negligent. The mere fact that a dog might bite someone would suggest that the dog owner has been negligent because they failed to properly control the animal. Knowledge again plays a part as for a dog owner to be held negligent it would have to be shown not just that they potentially failed to prevent the accident but also that they were aware that the accident could happen. So for a dog owner who has no knowledge of whether or not a dog has acted aggressively in the past there may be nothing wrong with allowing someone to stroke their dog. As far as they are aware they had no way of knowing that the dog would react as it did.