Who is Responsible if Your Dog Bites Someone?

They say a dog is man’s best friend, but it’s a safe bet that whoever coined that old adage had never been bitten by one. Any dog owner knows that the vast majority of dogs will live their entire lives and never bite anyone, but the potential is always there. No matter how tame and domesticated they may be, that wild influence lurks in their nature, and under the right circumstances, they can attack. As a dog owner, you should always remember that if your dog injures a person, their pet, or their livestock, you or anyone else who is legally responsible for your dog can be held liable for damages both pecuniary and nonpecuniary, which can be significant.

Dog Attacks Are a Serious Problem in CanadaAccording to the Alberta Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, in 2014 roughly 32% of Canadian households owned at least one dog, for a total of 5.9 million canines. There are over 500,000 dog bites reported in Canada each year. That’s a lot of potential for liability. It’s important that dog owners understand the laws that affect them in the province they live in, as the laws can differ significantly from province to province.

In general under common law, liability depends on whether the owner of a pet knew it posed a danger. In other words, if the pet didn’t have a history of aggressiveness or a propensity to bite, the owner isn’t liable.

On the other hand, if the owner knows an animal might be dangerous and allows it into a situation where it causes damage to someone, they are liable.

In some situations, if the person who is bitten is found to have provoked the dog into an attack, courts have usually not imposed liability (responsibility) on the dog owner

Stricter Laws in Some ProvincesHowever, some Canadian provinces have passed statutes (laws) that redefine the traditional understanding of liability under common law, and in general have put more responsibility on the owner or, in some cases, on individuals who only have an incidental connection to the animal.

For example, in Ontario, The Dog Owner’s Liability Act addresses the issue of dog attacks more comprehensively than any other province. The law places liability on the owner of the dog in the strictest sense. The owner is liable whether or not they knew the animal might be dangerous, and regardless of any measures the owner took to keep the dog under control. That liability extends to anyone who is found to have been ‘harbouring’ the dog, keeping the dog for the owner or simply letting the dog onto their property. Simply put, in Ontario if a person or their property is harmed by a dog, the owner or anyone who had immediate responsibility for the dog is liable.

However, the courts will take extenuating circumstances into account when assessing the amount of liability accorded to each party. If the owner was taking reasonable measures to prevent an attack, or if the victim was intimidating or threatening the dog, the damages may be significantly reduced. Also, if the owner didn’t have reason to believe the dog might be dangerous, they won’t be held liable for the first offense.

The law also states that pit bulls cannot be brought into the province, or bred there. Existing dogs are grandfathered in, but any puppies born after November of 2005 have to be removed from the province.

Prince Edward Island has its Dog Act, which is similar to the Dog Owner’s Liability Act except that, curiously, it only mentions liability in relation to livestock, and doesn’t address who is liable if a dog injures a person, although that doesn’t mean the courts won’t decide that under other statutes.

Alberta’s Dangerous Dogs Act is similar to the Prince Edward Island statute except that it does cover people who have been bitten by a dog.

Nova Scotia does not have any specific legislation dealing with liability of dog owners for dog bites. However, the Nova Scotia Occupiers Liability Act contains provisions that may be used to hold a dog owner responsible is someone is injured by a dog while on their property.

Duties of occupier

4 (1) An occupier of premises owes a duty to take such care as in all the circumstances of the case is reasonable to see that each person entering on the premises and the property brought on the premises by that person are reasonably safe while on the premises.

In order for a dog owner to be held liable under the Occupier’s Liability Act, the injured person would have to prove that the dog owner knew (or ought to have known) that their dog may pose a risk of harm to people on the property and the dog owner did not take reasonable steps to prevent the harm.

The bottom line is that if your dog bites someone or attacks their pets or livestock, you’re probably going to be held liable to some degree. Take steps to ensure that doesn’t happen.


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