We love our dogs. And in Mississippi, we have a long history of being hard working, responsible citizens. We know that part of being a responsible citizen is taking responsibility for your own actions — this responsibility extends to your pets also.
We are one of the few remaining states, however, where you are not automatically legally responsible for the wrongdoing of your pet. In fact, if your pet has not previously shown some vicious propensities, the old law of the “first bite is free” still has some viability. While we should all take responsibility if our dog injuries another, your homeowner’s insurance company will not necessarily pay for injuries and damages caused by your pet.
DO NOT BE MISLEAD. When faced with a claim against your homeowner’s insurance policy, your insurance company may claim that you are not responsible for the injuries caused by your pet if your pet has never bitten anyone in the past. That is not the exact law though. In fact, if you had preexisting knowledge of your dog “exhibiting some dangerous propensity or disposition prior to the attack”, you could be liable. Poy vs Grayson, 273 So. 2d.491,494 (MS 1973).
What is a vicious or dangerous propensity? Evidence of vicious propensities can be hostile snarling, growling, baring teeth and lunging after another person or other animal, even if they do not bite someone else. In addition, if your dog has ever forcibly knocked down another person, nipped at or taken “aggressive” action toward another, you could be liable. If you are not sure your dog falls into this category, be careful of allowing your dog to come into close contact with others.
I have represented countless individual who have been injured by someone else's dog. In all of my clients' cases, the previous owner improperly “disregarded” signs that their dog was a danger to others. In fact, in some cases the owner’s sought to hide their pets’ previous aggressive actions. Through private investigators, police, neighbors and often the local animal control officers, the truth comes out. And when the dog owner lies, their liability can become worse.
In one particularly sad case from many years ago, a man owned a large bloodhound hunting dog, a family pet for many years. As the dog got older, the hound had difficulty seeing and was apt to lose his temper. On several previous occasions, the old bloodhound had jumped on other children and had even snapped at a child. The man had disregarded this due to the dog’s old age. When my 10-year-old client was playing at the home, during a family gathering, the hound jumped on the child’s back and bit the young boy's head causing the scalp to be peeled partially off. The child required 75 stitches and was left with permanent scarring. Even though the owner had ignored the telltale signs of the vicious actions of his pet and fought liability, we were successful in obtaining proper compensation for the child.
In a time and place where we all want people to take individual responsibility for their own actions, let us not forget our obligation to take responsibility for our beloved pets also.
Stay safe out there.