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Dog Bites

When BC’s ‘One Bite’ Rule Applies to Dog Bites—And When it Doesn’t

Under British Columbian law, owners of pet dogs are required to protect others from the dangers these animals can sometimes pose. While rare, dog bites are a significant source of personal injury cases within BC courts, affecting dozens of people a year who are harmed in dog attacks and owed legal damages for their injuries and any resulting loss of income.

It is important to those considering pursuing a dog bite claim to understand BC’s common law standard—frequently referred to as the ‘one bite’ rule—and the questions surrounding its application to dog bite cases. The one bite rule is understood to mean that a dog’s first instance of aggression is considered an accident that poses no legal liability for its owner. However, there are exceptions in cases of extreme negligence regarding the handling and care of the animal that can implicate the owner.

What is the One Bite Rule?

The one bite rule refers to the common law standard of not holding owners liable for a dog’s first recorded bite incident, viewing it as an accident, rather than a civil or criminal offense. Most believe that when a dog bites for the first time, no one is considered at fault in the eyes of the law. However, this is not always true and sometimes a first bite can represent a serious disregard for personal injury by those responsible for an animal.

Also known as scienter, the one bite rule evolved from ideas about dog bite liability. When a person chooses to own an animal such as a dog, they are considered legally responsible for the animal’s actions. This is true from simple municipal leash laws to established personal injury precedents. In the rare but serious cases of dog attacks, the dog bite victim may be owed financial damages from the owner for the injuries they sustained.

When Does the One Bite Rule Apply?

The one bite rule applies in confirmed dog bite cases when the animal in question has no previous record of aggression. The legal rationale is that for an owner to be held accountable for their dog’s attack, they must be negligent in allowing it to happen. That means that the owner’s actions lead to the circumstances under which the attack occurred.

The existence of the one bite rule implies that future bites would indicate a broader pattern of dog aggression an owner must be aware of and take precautions to avoid. Owners may not want to believe their animal is dangerous but aggressive behavior in dogs is uncommon enough that their presence should send a clear signal the animal could be a risk.

What is Duty of Care?

Personal injury law dictates that certain individuals have a responsibility, or duty, to the safety of others that involves mitigating risks to their health and well-being. For dog bite laws, duty of care establishes that the owner of the dog has an obligation to remedy or avoid the hazardous conditions that a dangerous dog poses. Practical examples could include abiding by leash laws, posting a ‘beware of dog’ warning sign, and confining or restraining a dog when others are present. It could also entail an owner reporting a dog’s previous incidents of aggression to a veterinarian or BC’s animal control services.

In some cases, property owners who are not dog owners have a duty of care when a dog poses a hazard while on their property. This requirement is established under the Occupiers’ Liability Act, which dictates the circumstances under which property owners have an obligation to limit risks to individuals who visit their property, including limiting the risk of dog bites.

How Does the One Bite Rule Pertain to Dog Owner Liability?

Dog bite cases fall under the wider umbrella of personal injury cases. This means determining whether someone is legally responsible in the court of law, or liable, for an incident that led to an injury. If the presence of irresponsible behaviour or an absence of reasonable behaviour constitutes valid evidence of a dog bite, the courts will then determine whether the owner was negligent in their conduct. Negligence is defined as the careless disregard exhibited by individuals who are responsible for an accident resulting in injury. The next step to determining liability for a dog bite is whether or not that negligence led directly, or caused, harm amounting to owner liability.

When Might the One Bite Rule Not Apply?

For victims of dog bites considering legal action against the owners of the offending dog, you may wonder if the one bite rule always applies to your case. You may have already contracted local animal control authorities to report the incident and ask if the dog you’ve identified has any previous documented history of aggression. Keeping records related to animal attacks is an important part of what animal control does to keep the public safe.

For this hypothetical case, let’s assume the dog you’ve correctly identified has no previous recorded history of aggression. What next? Firstly, don’t let the lack of yet undiscovered evidence of an offending dog’s previous aggression deter you from speaking to a dog bite lawyer about your case. Victims have made successful cases and were awarded financial compensation for their injuries and the long term harm they experienced as a result, even when the dog had not previously bitten.

A successful dog bite case could result from the following circumstances, even in the face of the one bite rule:

  1. The damage the bite caused is extreme, resulting in emergency medical care and a prolonged recovery. In some cases of serious bites, animal control services will seize the animal and conduct an assessment of the situation and any future risk to the public. If they determine that an owner should have been aware of the dog’s risk of aggression, the victim’s lawyer can help establish the owner’s culpability.
  2. The events leading up to the bite demonstrate the owner’s egregious disregard for public and personal safety by ignoring signs of an impending attack.
  3. Evidence exists beyond animal control records (such as a neighbour’s witness statement) proving the owner should have been aware of the risk the dog posed generally.
  4. The dog bite occurred on someone else’s property and it can be established through the OLA that the property owner, in addition to the dog’s owner, had a responsibility to warn of or prevent a dog attack.

What Do You Need to Prove in Cases Where the One Bite Rule Doesn’t Apply?

To initiate legal action that in effect bypasses the doctrine of scienter and proves that the one bite rule should not apply to your case, you must establish:

  1. The dog’s owner as a matter of public record.
  2. A documented record of the dog’s past instances of aggressive or dangerous behaviour (that don’t include a previous bite).
  3. Knowledge on the part of the owner regarding the dog’s prior aggressive or dangerous behaviour.
  4. Negligence on the part of the dog owner ignoring the previous signs of aggression such as growling and gnashing of teeth preceding the dog bite incident.