Thank you so much to everyone that contributed a question/suggestion for a legal topic for Rich and I to research. I am excited to start tackling the issues! We didn’t quite get as much as I was expecting, so we will “round up” a little and I’ll buy a jumbo bag of food from Costco next time we are there for donation. Thank you all again!
My plan is to address the topics in the order we received them, with one exception: today’s topic. With warm weather upon on us, people and their pets are out en mass, and the likelihood increases for this type of situation to arise. A reader posed the question: What happens if I am walking my dog, on a leash, through our neighborhood and an off-leash dog comes up and causes my dog to bite it? She also wanted to know if it is appropriate to remind the owner of the dog about leash laws.
Before we address the question, it’s time for us to put in a boring disclaimer: please remember that Rich is not an attorney, but just a law student (for the next couple of months). Also, these posts should not be taken as legal advice, but just a general exploration of the issues that the post suggestions present. If you have an actual legal problem with your animal you should consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.
So, to start with the easier of the two questions: YES, you absolutely should remind people of leash laws anytime you see them with an off-leash dog. I know that I have been guilty of having my dogs off-leash at times in the past and it always annoyed me when someone would yell, “Your dog is supposed to be on a leash!” But why? My dogs are friendly! Now, “My dog is friendly!” is one of my biggest pet peeve statements. That’s good for you, but maybe the dog on the leash isn’t. The fact is, not all dogs are accepting of other dogs greeting them (often exasperated by being on a leash), and you should never assume otherwise. The odds are, the owner of the off-leash dog has no ill intentions and simply is unaware of the issue, like I used to be. I would recommend keeping things light and friendly, but also trying to kindly make them aware of why leash laws are in place. Maybe something like, “Hey neighbor! I noticed your cute little ____ is running around without a leash. My dog is friendly too, but there are some dogs who aren’t so friendly so it’s a good idea to just abide by the law which states dogs must be leashed. You know, better safe than sorry!”
Now back to the main question. Generally speaking if an unleashed dog provokes a dog that is being walked on a leash and the leashed dog snaps and attacks the unleashed dog, then the owner of the leashed dog should not have too much of a problem on their hands. This is due to one of two legal defenses, either contributory negligence, or assumption of the risk. Under contributory negligence a jury would apportion the liability, and thus the damages, between the two parties based on how their actions contributed to the bite. For assumption of the risk, the owner of the unleashed dog has assumed the risk of his or her dog getting attacked, by allowing it to roam free. Additionally, where a state has enacted a statute to provide for owner-liability for dog attacks, it may have also enacted other statutory defenses to liability.
Specifically in Florida there is a statute that provides for strict liability for the owner of a dog that attacks a domestic animal or person. Additionally there is a leash law in Leon County that requires dogs to be kept on a leash when they are off of their property. Florida courts have said that since it is a statutory action for damage caused by a dog attack, a defense of contributory negligence cannot be maintained in Florida. There are also very limited statutory defenses that have been enacted by the Florida lawmakers. However, Florida courts have decided that assumption of the risk and provocation are defenses that can be maintained under the strict liability statute. Thus a court would allow evidence to be brought forward that the owner of the unleashed dog assumed the risk that an attack would occur, and that the unleashed dog provoked the leashed dog into attacking. Ultimately it would be up to the jury to determine if the provocation was sufficient enough to cause the attack.
Nevertheless, all of this analysis may be unnecessary though, because if there is an attack that just injures another dog, the possible damages available, which are likely only the medical bills of the injured dog, would not be enough to justify court costs and legal fees to maintain a lawsuit.
So kids, play it safe and keep your dog on a leash! Questions? Hit me with your best shot.