Attacks by Animals

Photo of Jay Jackson

A week ago, police were called to rescue a postal worker and a woman walking her dog from two dogs who attacked them. The postal worker was treated at a hospital for multiple bite wounds.

Attacks by animals occur far too frequently, resulting occasionally in serious injury or even death. What responsibility does the animal's owner bear? Texas law creates several categories for analyzing cases of injuries caused by animals. For instance, owners of wild animals - like tigers or coyotes - are strictly liable when their animals attack people.

Another category comprises animals with "vicious" tendencies. Courts do not define a "vicious" or "aggressive" animal. But one example was a hog that had repeatedly charged a neighbor. "If an animal is vicious or has aggressive tendencies and the owner has knowledge of that propensity, the owner can be subject to liability under the law of strict liability." Labaj v. VanHouten, 322 S.W.3d 416 (Tex.App.-Amarillo 2010, no pet.). Therefore, liability requires proof of two elements: 1) the animal has vicious or aggressive tendencies; and 2) the owner knows of those propensities.

A final category, which may include most attacks by animals (often dogs), addresses animals that are not vicious. "[I]f an animal is non-vicious, the owner may still be subject to liability for negligent handling of the animal...Therefore, generally, '[t]he gist of an action to recover for injury caused by a domestic usually negligence of the owner or keeper in the keeping or handling of the animal.'" Labaj, id. at 420. According to Labaj, the injured person must prove that the owner of the animal owed a duty to exercise reasonable care of it, failed to do so, and the animal caused the injury.

Even when the dog does not have "dangerous propensities abnormal to its class," the claimant may succeed by "establishing that the owner had...notice of facts that would put an ordinary person on notice that the animal could cause harm and the owner was negligent in preventing such harm." Labaj, id. at 421. The bottom line is that, for animals not considered to be "vicious," the person possessing the animal must be aware of the nature of its breed and its circumstances, and take reasonable precautions to prevent harm.

The so-called "one free bite" or "one bite rule" posits that the owner cannot be liable for the first time that his dog bites someone. But that is not the law in Texas. Still, the dog's history of aggressiveness - or lack thereof - helps determine the nature of the duty owed by the owner.

Lastly, exercising "reasonable care" includes complying with the "leash law." This is something of a misnomer, because an ordinance may not actually require a leash, but rather might compel the owner to keep his animal under control. Most municipalities have passed laws which impose this obligation. In the City of Houston, for instance, Section 6-3 of the Houston Code of Ordinances prohibits owners of domestic animals from permitting them to "run at large."

Pets can provide wonderful companionship to their owners. But owners must take responsibility to keep them from attacking and injuring others.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of an animal attack, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Sorrels, Agosto & Friend by calling 713-222-7211 or 1-800-870-9584.

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