Criminal versus Civil Liability in a Dog Attack Case

Categories: Dog Attacks


Pennsylvania law allows victims to hold dog owners criminally and civilly liable, but the requirements differ significantly.

Dog attacks are a nightmare for the victims and even the owners of the dog that attacks.

In many cases, the owner had no idea that their pet would cause harm to another. It could be a family dog that has never been aggressive in the past. In these cases, it is unlikely the owner of that dog would face criminal penalties. However, civil penalties (in the form of monetary damages) are likely. Hopefully the dog owner has insurance to cover the victim’s losses.

Criminal penalties do apply in a select number of dog attack cases, but mostly when the dog owner was grossly negligent, or the dog caused significant harm to the victim.

When criminal penalties apply, the owner had evidence that an attack was imminent and they failed to take precautions – despite knowing the grave risks. This also applies if the dog owner was in violation of the dog law when the attack occurred (e.g., the dog was running loose). With dangerous dog laws in place, that owner could face fines, as well as having the dog declared dangerous, which requires the owner to meet a list of requirements (see below) in order to keep the dog.

The PA Dog Law Protects Philadelphia Residents

In 1996, Pennsylvania Legislature amended their previous Dog Law so that it was easier for victims of dog attacks to hold dog owners responsible for personal injuries and for harboring dangerous animals.

If the victim shows the dog inflicted injuries, attacked without reason, and they suffered damages, the owner could be convicted of harboring a dangerous animal and face civil penalties.

In Pennsylvania, the dog does not have to bite in the past for the owner to be liable. If the district judge feels the dog is dangerous, the owner has violated the Dangerous Dog Law – this can happen even if the dog had never exhibited vicious propensities before.

The consequences of a dog being declared dangerous include:

  • Being required to register the dog as a dangerous dog and pay the annual registration fee
  • Creating a special kennel on their property for the dog to prevent future attacks
  • Keeping the dog muzzled while off the property
  • Notifying homeowner’s insurance of the dangerous dog registration
  • Paying the victim for any medical expenses that occurred from the attack

What Criminal Charges Can a Dog’s Owner Face?

The type of criminal penalties a dog’s owner faces depends on the circumstances of the attack and the severity of the injuries. It also depends on the dog owner’s role in the attack.

General negligence often results in the penalties mentioned above. However, if the owner trains his or her dog to be vicious or instructs the dog to attack a person viciously, the sentences become more severe.

Owners could face fines of several thousand dollars, be required to remove and euthanize the dog, and face felony charges – which include a felony criminal record and imprisonment.

The Assumption of Risk Defense

While the burden of proof is lower in a criminal dog penalty case, realize that the defense has the right to use the assumption of risk defense and may succeed with that defense. This defense essentially means that he dog attack victim plays a role in the attack (such as provoking the dog).

Medical Expense Payments Are Not Enough

While the criminal court will force the owner to pay medical expenses, these are not enough for severe dog attacks. The medical costs are a mere sliver of a victim’s actual damages.

After all, a vicious attack could result in serious, debilitating and permanent  injuries. A person may require multiple surgeries, be permanently disfigured, and even suffer emotional trauma. There may be lost wages, loss of enjoyment in life, and more.

To recover these damages, a victim must file a civil lawsuit against the dog’s owner.

Burden of Proof

Here is where civil and criminal courts veer away from one another. While the law allows a victim to hold the dog’s owner responsible for their damages, criminal court has a higher standard of proof than civil court.

In a civil case, the victim has the burden of proving that the “more likely than not” the dog owner was negligent. In the criminal scenario (violation of the dog law), the prosecution must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the dog is dangerous and that the dog law was violated.

In a civil suit, to recover your economic losses such as pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, and more, you must show that the owner knew or reasonably should have known their dog was dangerous and failed to exercise care to prevent an injury. However, if the injury is severe enough, such knowledge on the part of the dog owner can be assumed. Even if this is the dog’s very first attack.

A violation of the Pennsylvania Dog Law (this is the criminal side of a dog bite that is handled by the state when they press charges against a dog owner) can help the civil case (what I as your dog bite attorney handle). For example, Pennsylvania’s Dog Law does require that owners keep animals confined to the premises or on a leash when off their property. If the owner violates this law, it makes it easier to prove negligence in the civil aspect of the case. I am constantly pushing dog enforcement/animal control officials to press charges so our civil case is stronger.

Are Landlords Responsible?

A landlord can be held responsible for the injuries caused by a tenant’s dog under limited circumstances. We must prove the following:

(i) The landlord knew that the tenant had a dog on the property (easy to show);

(ii) The landlord knew the dog was dangerous (not as easy);

(iii) Knowing there was a dangerous dog on the property, the landlord failed to insist that the dog be removed or that the tenant be evicted.

Landlord cases are very tough, but not impossible. Which is why I always cross my fingers that the dog owner has renter’s insurance.

Injured in a Dog Attack? Contact an Attorney

If you or a loved one was injured in a severe dog attack, you have rights. Not only can you hold that owner responsible in criminal court, but you can seek further damages through a civil lawsuit. To explore your options, schedule a free consultation with an attorney in your area.

For victims in Pennsylvania, contact me, Jeffrey H. Penneys, Esq. You can contact me online by completing an online contact form or request a free case evaluation by calling my office at 800-465-8795 or my cell at 215-771-0430.