Dog Bite Cases in North Carolina

Dog bite claims are common among insurance carriers. The Insurance Information Institute reported $882 million in carrier liability for dog bites and injuries in 2021. In 2020, AP News reported 46 deadly attacks on humans by dogs and the average cost per dog bite claim that year increased to $50,425.

Types of dog bite claims

Insurance carriers see several types of dog bite claims. The most common involve house guests injured by a homeowner’s dog. Claims also arise when a dog gets off its leash or when a dog escapes the owner’s property and attacks a passerby. Establishments, such as pet-friendly hotels and businesses, may also see claims if a dog attacks a patron.

How does North Carolina law address dog bites?

Common Law Negligence

The legal standard in North Carolina is,

whether the owner should know from the dog’s past conduct that he is likely, if not restrained, to do an act from which a reasonable person, in the position of the owner, could foresee that an injury . . . would be likely to result. That is, the liability of the owner depends upon his negligence in failing to confine or restrain the dog.

Hunnicut v. Lundberg, 94 N.C. App. 210, 211, 379 S.E.2d 710, 711-712 (1989); quoting Sink v. Moore, 267 N.C. 344, 350, 148 S.E.2d 265, 270 (1966) (emphasis added). The dog’s size, nature, and habits, known to the owner, are all circumstances to be considered in determining whether the owner was negligent. Id. Prior incidents are key – aggressive behavior, prior attacks, and animal control complaints are all evidence of past conduct that would put an owner on notice of the dog’s dangerous tendencies. Foreseeability is a key component of defense – if the attack was not foreseeable, a defendant cannot be found liable.

Negligence per se

Many municipalities also have “leash laws” regarding the restraint of dogs. For example, Cabarrus County Ordinance 10-6 states,

“It shall be unlawful for any person owning or having possession, charge, custody or control of any animal . . . to keep such animal off his premises . . . unless such animal is under sufficient physical restraint such as a leash, bridle, cage, or similar device. . .”

Plaintiffs may claim that violation of these ordinances constitutes negligence per se. When a statute imposes a duty on a person for the protection of others, then a violation of that statute, which injures the class of persons that statute is designed to protect, is negligence per se.

Statutory Liability

N.C. Gen. Stat. 67 is the statutory authority for liability of dogs in North Carolina. One of the more notable sections is N.C. Gen. Stat. 67-4.4, which directs that the owner of a “dangerous dog” shall be strictly liable in civil damages for any injuries or property damage the dog inflicts upon a person, his property, or another animal.

A “dangerous dog” is defined as a dog that, without provocation, has killed or inflicted severe injury on a person or is determined to be potentially dangerous because the dog has engaged in one or more behaviors listed in the statute. A “potentially dangerous dog” is one that: has Inflicted a bite on a person that resulted in broken bones, disfiguring lacerations, required cosmetic surgery, or hospitalization; killed or inflicted severe injury upon a domestic animal when not on the owner’s real property; or approached a person when not on the owner’s property in a vicious or terrorizing manner in an apparent attitude of attack. Again, past behavior is key.

N.C. Gen. Stat. 67-12 provides that an owner shall be liable for damages arising out of his dog running at large.

Additionally, North Carolina pattern jury instructions consist of six other instructions covering liability for dog attacks. See N.C.P.I. – Civil, Chapter 14. These include instructions for the wrongful keeping of vicious domestic animals (N.C.P.I. – Civil 812.00); wrongfully allowing a dog to run at large at night (N.C.P.I. – Civil 812.01); violation of a leash law or ordinance or another animal control ordinance (N.C.P.I. – Civil 812.04); owning a dog which injures, kills, or maims livestock or fowl (N.C.P.I. – Civil 812.05); failing to destroy immediately a dog bitten by a rabid dog (N.C.P.I. – Civil 812.06); and strict liability for injury or damage caused by a “dangerous dog” (N.C.P.I. – Civil 812.07).

N.C.P.I. – Civil 812.00 asks whether the plaintiff was damaged by a vicious animal wrongfully owned by the defendant listing the following elements for liability:

  1. Defendant owned (kept) the animal;
  2. The animal was dangerous, vicious, or had vicious tendencies;
  3. Defendant knew or should have known of the vicious tendencies;
  4. The animal injured Plaintiff;
  5. Such injury was the type likely to result from the animal’s vicious tendencies.

What about certain breeds?

Many municipalities have animal ordinances that also impose strict liability for special breeds of dogs. For example, Wake County Animal Ordinance 2-3-11 states: “It shall be unlawful for any owner to keep an inherently dangerous mammal within the county.” An inherently dangerous mammal is any live member of the Canidae (dogs), Felidae (cats), or Ursidae (bears) families, including hybrids thereof, which, due to their inherent nature, may be considered dangerous to humans. This includes any member of the dog family not customarily domesticated by man, or any hybrids thereof, including wolf hybrids which are a cross between a wolf and domestic dog.

Pit Bulls and Rottweilers are inherently dangerous, right?

No, North Carolina courts have not accepted the notion that Pit Bulls or Rottweilers are inherently dangerous solely due to their breed. This would be an issue of fact that may be supported or refuted by expert testimony.

Exemptions from liability

N.C. Gen. Stat. 67-4.1(b) provides exemptions from liability from dog attacks in certain cases. The statute exempts liability where the dog is:

  1. A dog being used by law enforcement to carry out the law enforcement officer’s official duties;
  2. A dog being used in a lawful hunt;
  3. A working dog while under the control of its handler and where the damage was appropriate for the type of work; and
  4. A dog that attacks a person who was committing a willful trespass or another tort, was tormenting, abusing, or assaulting the dog, had tormented, abused, or assaulted the dog, or was committing or attempting to commit a crime.

Children and Dog Bites

A number of dog bite claims include children. In terms of liability, claims involving minors are more difficult to establish contributory negligence. Children under the age of 7 are generally considered incapable of negligence. Children between the ages of 7 and 14 are presumed incapable, but the presumption may be rebutted. Children over the age of 14 may be found capable of negligence.

How to Assess Claims and Best Practices

Below are the best practices in assessing a dog bite claim in North Carolina.

  • Investigate the dog’s prior history
    • Look for animal control records
    • Ask insureds about prior attacks against any humans and other animals
    • Look for veterinary records which may indicate past issues with the dog
  • Investigate the claimant’s damages and injuries
  • Evaluate any potential defenses

If litigation arises – work with defense counsel and insureds to prepare the matter for summary judgment

  • Investigate whether strict liability will be an issue
    • Is the dog a special breed? (wolf hybrid, wolf, etc.) (not bulldog, Rottweiler, Pitbull, etc.)
    • Would the dog qualify as a “dangerous dog” under N.C. law?
  • Look for contributory negligence
    • If the plaintiff is found to have contributed to his/her injury through his/her negligence, he/she is barred from recovery.
      • Did the plaintiff aggravate the dog? (grab the dog, approach in a menacing way, etc.)
      • Were “beware of dog” signs posted to put the plaintiff on notice?
  • If there is not a history of prior dangerous conduct from the dog, evaluate whether there is enough evidence to move for summary judgment based on lack of past conduct.

Article written with assistance from Cranfill Sumner LLP clerk Devin Honbarger.