Tennessee’s dog bite law may prove confusing to victims at first glance. Tennessee law imposes different standards of liability on dog owners depending on where, and under what circumstances, their dog caused injury to another. To better understand a dog owner’s liability under Tennessee law, we’ll break the statute down into the different situations it covers.
Often sudden, terrifying, and extremely painful, dog attacks can cause significant trauma and sometimes permanent physical damage to victims. It is vital to seek immediate medical attention in dog bite cases, which may include rabies and tetanus shots, stitches, or even reconstructive surgery. Because dog bites can easily incur expensive and time-consuming medical procedures, it may be necessary to explore the possibility that the dog’s owner is financially liable for such injuries.
Strict Liability Under Tennessee’s Dog Bite Statute
Tennessee’s dog bite law is codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-8-413. The first part of the statute explains situations in which the dog’s owner will face strict liability (or be held automatically at fault) for injuries caused by his or her dog.
(1) The owner of a dog has a duty to keep that dog under reasonable control at all times, and to keep that dog from running at large. A person who breaches that duty is subject to civil liability for any damages suffered by a person who is injured by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in or on the private property of another.
(2) The owner may be held liable regardless of whether the dog has shown any dangerous propensities or whether the dog’s owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities.
This section tells us that if a dog is allowed to run at large and injures a person who is either in a public place (such as the sidewalk, street, a store parking lot, or a public park), or who is lawfully on another’s private property, the dog’s owner will automatically be liable for the individual’s injuries, even if the owner had no reason to believe that their dog would bite.
But what does “running at large” mean? Part (e)(2) of the statute explains the term:
(e) (2) Running at large means a dog goes uncontrolled by the dog’s owner upon the premises of another, without the consent of the owner of the premises . . . or goes uncontrolled by the owner upon a highway, public road, street, or any other place open to the public generally.
Tennessee law does not distinguish between dogs who are allowed to roam free, and dogs who escape their enclosures through the owner’s accident or mistake. Legally speaking, a dog is “at large” whenever he is on another’s property without the supervision and control of his owner. This means that a dog owner will be strictly liable for injuries caused by their “at large” dog even if the dog escaped through no fault of the owner.
Exceptions to Strict Liability
There are a few exceptions to the strict liability rule, however. These include situations where:
- The dog is a police or military dog and the injury occurred during the course of the dog’s official duties
- The injured person was trespassing upon the private, nonresidential property of the dog’s owner
- The injury occurred while the dog was protecting the dog’s owner or other innocent party from attack by the injured person, or a dog owned by the injured person
- The injury occurred while the dog was securely confined in a kennel, crate, or other enclosure
- The injury occurred as a result of the injured person enticing, disturbing, alarming, harassing, or otherwise provoking the dog
Any of these exceptions, if applicable, may serve as a dog owner’s defense to strict liability under the Tennessee statute. The most commonly-used exceptions are the trespasser’s exception and the provocation exception; if a dog owner raises either of these defenses, the victim may have to offer evidence showing that they were lawfully on the property or that their behavior did not provoke the dog’s attack.
Tennessee’s “One Bite” Rule
Some dog bite situations, however, do not trigger strict liability on the dog’s owner. Section (c) (1) of the statute explains:
If a dog causes damage to a person while the person is on residential, farm, or other noncommercial property, and the dog’s owner is the owner of the property, or is on the property by permission of the owner or as a lawful tenant or lessee . . . the claimant shall be required to establish that the dog’s owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities.
In other words, a dog owner is not automatically at fault in situations where their dog injures someone on the owner’s rented or owned property, or property where the dog’s owner has permission to be. In these situations, Tennessee applies what is known as the “one bite” rule.
The “one bite” rule stems from the requirement that the injured claimant must show that the dog’s owner “knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities”. Generally, this means that the dog must have shown aggressive tendencies in the past, so that the owners were already aware that their dog was a risk to others. If there has been no previous incident to alert the owner to their dog’s behavior issues, the dog essentially gets “one free bite”, because a court will not hold the owner liable for their dog’s sudden and completely unforeseeable act.
If you or a loved one have suffered injuries as the result of a dog bite in Tennessee, call the Nashville dog bite attorneys at David Randolph Smith & Associates. Our Nashville personal injury lawyers can evaluate your case and offer expert advice on the next steps in your litigation.