Overview of Washington State's Dog Bite Laws - Part #2Author: Christopher Davis
Liability Imposed Against the Dog's "Owner"
Washington's dog bite statute only imposes liability against the "owner" of the dog. So occasionally a dispute arises about who actually owns the dog. For instance, if the person who harbors and takes care of the dog is not the true legal owner of the animal, can this person still be liable for the injuries inflicted by the dog? The answer is usually yes. Although the dog bite statute refers to liability of the dog "owner," there are court decisions that broadly define the owner to include one who possesses and/or cares for the dog.
In one case that occurred back in 1988, the dog was purchased and "owned" by a young woman. But the woman kept her dog at her grandmother's home. The grandmother resided with and cared for the dog during a three-year period before the dog bit and injured another person. The question was whether the grandmother could be held liable for the injuries when she was not necessarily the true owner of the dog. A Washington State court answered yes. The grandmother's conduct of harboring and caring for the dog over a three-year period was sufficient conduct to make her an "owner" of the dog for purposes of imposing liability under the statute. The court seemed to focus on the fact that the grandmother acted like the owner of the dog over a long period of time. Perhaps this case sends the message that if you act like the dog's owner, or if you hold yourself out to others as the owner of the dog, you may be responsible for any injuries or damages that dog inflicts upon others.
Furthermore, there may be various local regulations and ordinances that also broadly define the owner of a dog. In King County a dog owner is broadly defined as "any person having an interest in or right of possession to the animal, or any person having control, custody, or possession of an animal...or by reason of the animal being seen residing consistently at a location, to an extent such that the person could be presumed to be the owner." This definition is broad enough to include any person who harbors or keeps the dog for a period of time that is sufficient to cause one to believe that the person may be the true or legal owner, even if that person is not.
The question may arise: what period of time is sufficient to cause one to believe that one who harbors the dog is the true or legal owner of that dog? This is a factual question that may need to be resolved by a jury. Certainly, the longer a person acts like the dog's owner, or engages in conduct similar to the owner, means the greater likelihood that this person may also be legally responsible for the dog's dangerous or vicious propensities toward other human beings.
Although the dog's "owner" may be defined quite broadly, there are certain limitations that exist. For instance, the question has been raised whether a landlord can be considered an "owner" of the dog for purposes of subjecting the landlord to liability under the dog bite statute. Washington courts have clearly stated no. A landlord will usually not be considered the dog's owner just based on that person's status as a landlord. Thus, if the dog owner is a renter or if the dog attack occurred on property that was being leased, the victim cannot rely on the dog bite statute to attempt to impose liability on the person who either owns or controls the property, unless that person also shares the responsibility of keeping, feeding and harboring the dog - tasks usually performed by the dog's true owner.
Christopher M. Davis is a Seattle attorney focusing on personal injury cases. He is also known as a animal attack and dog bite lawyer and has written the book 'When The Dog Bites' as a legal resource for dog bite victims. For more information about Washington State dog bite law visit: http://www.injurytriallawyer.com/practice_areas/dog-bites-animal-attacks.cfm
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