By F. Scott Pauzar, III, Florida Personal Injury Attorney
Who is liable for dog bites in Florida? For many dog owners, their dogs are not just pets, but more akin to family members. After the Covid-19 pandemic-related lockdowns began in early 2020, there was a tremendous upswing in people adopting dogs from their local animal shelters. Over the last decade there has been a noticeable increase in people bringing their dogs with them to public places, including retail stores, restaurants and special events. These increases in dog ownership and mobility also increase the potential that a bite incident will occur.
Under Florida law, owners of dogs are strictly liable for any injuries caused by their animals. In other words, Florida dog owners can be held liable if their dog bites someone even if the owner had no prior knowledge or warning that the dog might bite. This means that victims of dog bite injuries do not need to establish that the dog owner was somehow negligent; it is enough to simply prove ownership of the dog.
However, the law only applies to individuals who are lawfully on the property of the dog’s owner or in a public place. A person who is trespassing on private property without permission will not be considered “lawfully” on that property, and the dog owner may not be held liable for a bite sustained under these circumstances.
Florida’s dog bite law does contain an exception: there is no liability under the statute if the victim is six years of age or older, the incident happens on the dog owner’s premises, and those premises contain a conspicuously posted sign saying either “Bad Dog” or “Beware of Dog.” The sign must be displayed in a prominent place and easily readable by the public.
Landlord Liability Issues
Florida law also provides that a landlord may be held legally responsible for dog bites occurring on its property involving dogs owned by tenants. In the case of White v. Whitworth, 509 So. 2d 378 (Fla. 4th DCA 1987), a child was injured by a pit bull owned by the landlord’s daughter. The dog was kept in one of the apartments owned by the landlord. Further, there was evidence that the landlord had “actual knowledge” of the dog’s dangerous nature. The Court ruled that the landlord had a duty to make the premises “reasonably safe” for the other tenants on the property as it was “reasonably foreseeable” that they could be injured by such a dangerous dog.
The primary elements for holding a landlord responsible for an injury to third parties on rental property in Florida include: (1) the landlord is aware of the aggressive or vicious demeanor of the dog (dog living on the premises), (2) the landlord maintains control over the property and has the right to enforce lease provisions, and (3) the landlord failed to take reasonable steps to protect third parties from the dangerous animal. In the case of Ramirez v. M.L. Management Co., Inc., 920 So. 2d 36 (Fla. 4th DCA 2005), a landlord was held liable for a dog bite where it failed to enforce a rule prohibiting tenants from having pit bulls on the premises. In that case, the landlord knew a tenant was keeping a pit bull on the rental property but failed to evict the tenant for noncompliance with the lease agreement. Thereafter, the dog attacked a child at a nearby park and the landlord was held legally responsible for the injuries sustained by the child.
Serious Injuries Can Occur
Dog bites can result in very serious injuries to adults and children, including permanent disability, disfigurement and even death. In the event you or your child are bitten by a dog, you should seek immediate medical attention for any injuries. You will also want to do your best to identify the dog that bit you, as well as the dog’s owner, and contact the appropriate animal control and law enforcement authorities so they can determine if the animal is current with its vaccinations. You should also take photographs of the injuries as early as possible, and at regular intervals during the healing process.
If you or your child have sustained an injury after being bitten by someone’s dog, you may be entitled to seek damages for costs of medical treatment, permanent disabilities, disfigurement as well as past and future wage loss. Additionally, you can seek damages for your pain, suffering and mental anguish. The statute of limitations for dog bite claims in Florida is four years. However, if you have suffered an injury due to a dog bite, it is recommended that you contact an attorney with experience in handling dog bite claims as early as possible so that they can make efforts to preserve evidence related to the incident and advise you on your options moving forward.