Dog Bite Law In Washington State: What Are Your Rights?
If you’ve suffered a dog bite, you may be entitled to compensation under Washington State law. You may also be able to recover damages for dog bites to animals you own.
Contact a personal injury attorney for immediate assistance, or read on to learn more about Washington’s laws on dog bites.
Who’s liable for a dog bite in Washington State?
Part of owning a dog is owning its actions. Owners are generally on the hook for everything from quality-of-life issues (like cleaning up waste and dealing with excessive barking) to major safety concerns (namely, biting).
Under Washington law, the dog’s owner is generally responsible for a bite. This doesn’t apply if the victim trespassed or provoked the dog, nor if the victim was injured by a police dog in the course of duty.
Here’s how RCW 16.08.040 spells it out (emphasis ours):
“The owner of any dog which shall bite any person while such person is in or on a public place or lawfully in or on a private place including the property of the owner of such dog, shall be liable for such damages as may be suffered by the person bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.”
In effect, owners are liable for most of the random dog-bite incidents we tend to hear about. However, three main exceptions may reduce or eliminate their liability.
Limits to dog bite liability in Washington
Liability is fairly straightforward if the victim was bitten in public or while invited into private property.
It’s harder to claim damages for a bite that happened while trespassing on private premises. Property owners simply don’t owe the same care to trespassers that they do to guests. Trespassing may even open the victim to other charges or liability, too.
Even so, context matters.
Was the private property clearly delineated? Did the owners post a “beware of dog” sign in a place where trespassers are expected (like a popular but unauthorized shortcut)? Did the owners deliberately set a dangerous dog on a suspected trespasser after entering?
These aren’t complete or definitive exceptions, but they underscore the importance of exploring legal options with a qualified personal injury lawyer.
If it’s shown that the dog bite was the result of provocation, then compensation is unlikely. According to RCW 16.08.060:
“Proof of provocation of the attack by the injured person shall be a complete defense to an action for damages.”
Keep in mind that the type and extent of provocation may lead to other legal issues, too. For instance, severe cases may fall under the animal cruelty statute of RCW 16.52.
However, the victim’s age is critical. Children aren’t considered capable of negligence before a certain age (that’s six years, in Washington). Before that point, provocation may not work as a defense.
Even past that age, negligence and provocation are relative. An 18-year-old is held to the same standard of responsibility as a 40-year-old, but less is expected of a 6-year-old than of a 10-year-old.
3. Police & fire dogs (on duty)
Finally, there’s generally no liability if a police dog or accelerant detection (fire) dog injures someone in the course of good-faith duty.
There may still be an avenue to compensation if the handler was untrained, unauthorized, off duty, absent, or acting in bad faith. However, these situations are particularly rare and complex.
Common questions about Washington dog bite law
What if the dog had never bitten before?
Under Washington law, the absence of biting history doesn’t reduce liability. Quoting again from RCW 10.08.040, liability applies “regardless of the former viciousness of such dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.”
However, owners have additional duties and restrictions for dangerous and potentially dangerous dogs. These don’t necessarily affect a bite victim’s compensation (outside of extreme circumstances) but may affect the owner’s criminal liability.
What happens to dogs that bite?
After a relatively minor bite or generally menacing behavior, the dog may be labeled “potentially dangerous” and subjected to local restrictions.
After a bite causing death or severe injury, the dog will at minimum be labeled “dangerous” and subjected to restraint, insurance, and registration requirements. If the owner knew or should have known of the dog’s potential danger, then the dog will be confiscated immediately, and euthanized upon its owner’s conviction.
(Under RCW 16.08.070, severe injuries are “broken bones or disfiguring lacerations requiring multiple sutures or cosmetic surgery.”)
How common are dog bites?
Biting isn’t inevitable, but it’s more common than most owners realize. Even docile and loving dogs, with no history of aggression, are capable of biting.
In an average year, America’s 85 million dogs are responsible for a staggering 4.5 million bites, of which 800,000 require medical attention. Bites accounted for nearly 18,000 homeowners claims and almost $900 million in insurance payouts in 2021 alone.
Should I contact a personal injury attorney for my dog bite?
Under Washington law, you have three years to file your claim. We strongly recommend working with a personal injury attorney with a track record of moving quickly and winning dog bite cases.
The circumstances around a dog bite can make the difference between ample compensation or none at all. Owners often rely on trespassing or provocation defenses, but these aren’t black-and-white matters, either.
Our veteran lawyers will ensure that the court understands the full extent of your injuries, as well as the situation that led to them.
Contact us today to discuss your dog bite injury with an expert.