If an animal bites you, the first thing to determine is: who is the owner of the animal? In most states, the owner of an animal can be held liable for the injuries it inflicts, provided that the owner knew (or had reason to know) that the animal had “dangerous propensities.”

In other words, if an animal owner knows that his or her animal is dangerous and could cause injury to a person, the animal owner can be held liable for the animal’s harmful actions.

Determining whether an owner knew of an animal’s “dangerous propensities” can be difficult. The first question that often arises in making this determination is whether the owner needs to know of the particular animal’s potential for harm, or whether the owner only needs to know that type of animal is potentially harmful. For example, when a person has a pit bull as a pet, does that mean the owner knows or should know the pet will be harmful, just because, in general, pit bulls can be harmful?

Most courts have ruled that an animal owner is responsible for knowing both the particular and general potential for his animal to cause harm. Thus, even if a pit bull owner had never seen his pet act viciously, he might still be held responsible for an attack by the dog because of the propensity of pit bulls in general to be aggressive animals. In such a situation, the owner is said to have “constructive notice” of the animal’s vicious propensities.

Additionally, sometimes an animal’s vicious propensity may be inferred from the circumstances of the attack. For instance, if a trained guard dog attacks someone, a judge or court could infer that the owner knew or should have known the dog would attack someone who entered the area the dog was guarding.
Some states impose what is known as “strict liability” upon animal owners whose animals bite or attack others. Under the theory of strict liability, an owner is legally responsible (liable) for an animal bite, regardless of whether the owner did anything wrong with respect to protecting others from attack. Under this theory, even if the owner had no reason to know that his or her animal was dangerous, if the animal bit someone, the owner would still be liable.