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Arizona Dog Bite Liability 101

Strict Liability for Owners

Arizona’s dog bite statute imposes strict liability on the owner of a dog that bites a person. See Arizona Revised Statutes section 11-1025. In order to hold a dog owner liable for a dog bite, an injured person must show that (1) the injury was caused by a dog bite, and (2) the bite was suffered while the person was in a public place or lawfully on private property. Arizona Revised Statutes section 11-1026 defines what is meant by “lawful presence on private property.” This statute applies only to dog bites, not other kinds of injuries caused by dogs. However, other injuries caused by dogs “at large” “shall be the full responsibility of the dog owner or person or persons responsible for the dog when [the] damages were inflicted.” See Arizona Revised Statutes section 11–1020. Whether a dog is “at large” is determined by two conditions: “(1) when a dog is ‘not confined by an enclosure,’ or (2) when a dog is not ‘physically restrained by a leash.'” Mulcahy v. Damron, 816 P.2d 270, 169 Ariz. 11 (1991).

Strict liability for dog owners means that no consideration is given to actual fault on the part of the owner. Murdock v. Balle, 144 Ariz. 136, 696 P.2d 230 (Ct. App. 1985). In Arizona, dogs do not get “one free bite;” owners are held strictly liable for injuries caused by their dog’s bite even if the dog had never bitten before and the owner had no knowledge of the dog’s viciousness. Massey v. Colaric, 151 Ariz. 65, 725 P.2d 1099 (1986). This is distinct from the common law which imposes liability on dog owners only if the owner knew or had reason to know of their animal’s vicious propensities. Murdock, 144 Ariz. at 138, 696 P.2d at 232.

Who Is An “Owner?”

Moreover, the statute imposes liability upon owners. Johnson v. Svidergol, 157 Ariz. 333, 757 P.2d 609 (Ct. App. 1988). However, case law considers a person “keeping” a dog for more than six consecutive days to be the dog’s “owner.” In order to be “keeping” the dog, the person must have exercised care, custody, or control of the dog. Spirlong v. Browne, 236 Ariz. 146, 336 P.3d 779, 780 (Ct. App. 2014).

Spirlong is the most recently decided Arizona dog bite liability case. In Spirlong, David Mayes, a dog owner, rented two rooms in a house from Charles Brown. In addition to Mayes and Brown, Brown’s girlfriend, Shasta Russell, lived in the home. One day, Mayes left the dog out while Russell was home. The dog escaped and bit a child who was riding his bike on a nearby street. The parents of the victim sued Mayes, Brown, and Russell, arguing that they were “keeping” the dog within the meaning of the statute because they housed the dog. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument and concluded under the meaning of the statute, strict liability will only be imposed on the person who has exercised care, custody, or control of the dog, not simply one who allows a dog to live on or in their property.

Any Available Defenses?

The only defense to liability under section 11-1025 is proof that the injured party provoked the dog. Murdock v. Balle, 144 Ariz. 136, 696 P.2d 230 (Ct. App. 1985). The defense is based upon Arizona Revised Statutes section 11-1027, which defines “provocation.” Assumption of the risk is not a defense. Massey v. Colaric, 151 Ariz. 65, 725 P.2d 1099 (1986); Mulcahy v. Damron, 816 P.2d 270, 169 Ariz. 11 (1991) (holding that a person who works for a pet hospital will not be deemed to have assumed the risk of being bitten by a dog who is at the hospital for treatment and/or grooming.)

Statute of Limitations

A cause of action brought pursuant to Arizona’s dog bite statute is subject to a one year statute of limitations. Murdock v. Balle, 144 Ariz. 136, 696 P.2d 230 (Ct. App. 1985). However, a dog bite case styled as a traditional negligence case would be subject to the two-year personal injuries statute of limitations. Id. at 234. Under the common law theory of liability, the owner is liable for injury caused by the animal if the owner knows or has reason to know that the animal has dangerous propensities abnormal to its class of animals, even if the owner exercised the utmost care in trying to prevent the injury. James v. Cox, 130 Ariz. 152, 154, 634 P.2d 964, 966 (Ct. App. 1981).

Takeaway

In Arizona, dog owners should take care with their dogs not only when they are walking to the dog park, but also when leaving their pet in the care of another. Case law shows owners face an uphill battle to overcome the state’s strict liability standards for dog bites.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lena Pond is a graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. She specializes in insurance defense, insurance coverage disputes, insurance bad faith, professional liability, and general civil litigation. Contact her at 602-386-5654 or lpond@tysonmendes.com.

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