Usually, a dog and its owner will NOT be held liable if a trespasser gets bitten by the resident canine. However, this isn’t always the case, given that there are a number factors and considerations that will affect the overall legal outcome. Different states have varying laws and statutes, which is why you need to consult with a personal injury attorney regarding the outcome.

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In this blog post, we’ll talk about possible situations, outcomes and the factors which affect the legal battle between dogs and dog owners vs trespassers.

What is the legal definition of a trespasser?

Basically, a trespasser is a person who unlawfully enters private property. However, bear in mind that stepping into your neighbor’s yard and knocking on their door doesn’t immediately make you a trespasser, mainly because there is what we call “implied permission”.

What is implied permission? Basically, it is consent which is not expressly granted by a person, but rather inferred from a person’s actions and the circumstances of a certain situation. In the trespassing perspective, keep in mind that a survey-taker may have “implied permission” to enter your yard and knock on the front door if you don’t have a locked gate or a “no entry” sign.

Reasonable care to trespassers

Trespassers who have implied permission have to be treated by the property owner with reasonable care. It is under the umbrella of the legal term called “standard of care”, which is defined as the amount of attentiveness and caution exhibited by a reasonable person. If the owner exercises this, then he is not liable for the injuries sustained by the trespasser while in the property. If he doesn’t, then he will be answerable to the trespasser’s medical bills.

Photo from Kenny Louie (Flickr user). Under CC license.

For example, a salesman entered the yard of a home with a picket fence, even if there is a prominent “BEWARE OF DOG” sign next to the mailbox. Suddenly, a large dog emerged from the side of the house and pounced on the trespasser, resulting into numerous dog bites.

Question, did the owner exercise reasonable care? Definitely, thanks to the “BEWARE OF DOG” sign in his property. The salesman willingly took the risk of getting hurt despite prior warning from the owner.

However, if there was no “BEWARE OF DOG” sign or if it was barely visible, then the owner will be held liable for the injuries. Why? Simply because he did not exercise reasonable care and failed to warn trespassers about the hidden danger, like dog bites.

Automatic Non-liability

If a trespasser has criminal intent and his actions say so, then there is no liability on the part of the owner. For example, a burglar broke into your front door in the middle of the night and was attacked by the family dog; there will obviously there will be no liability on your part because the trespasser had the intention to commit the crime.

However, it is almost impossible to prove criminal liability in the case of survey-takers and salesmen, so the liability regard will likely depend on the reasonable care statute.

Dangerous Propensities

If a dog has exhibited prior behavior which indicates that it poses a physical threat to human beings, the owner will likely be held liable even if he exercised reasonable care, like putting up a “BEWARE OF DOG” signs. A dog’s breed may also be used as a basis if it has dangerous propensities, like in the case of pit bulls.

There is an exception to this rule – if the home owner puts the dog on a chain but was still approached by the trespasser, then the owner will not be held liable for damages, even if the dog bites.

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