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Chuck Boyk
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Ohio dog bite lawyer Dale Emch on dog bite injury liability

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What do you do if it is your dog that bites someone? Ohio dog bite lawyer Dale Emch discusses the flip side to dog bite injuries in his most recent Legal Briefs column. If you have a general legal question you would like to see addressed, including those on Ohio car accident settlements, Ohio work injury payments, or medical malpractice, contact Dale today at demch@charlesboyk-law.com.

I heard that a dog’s owner isn’t responsible for a dog bite if the person bitten was trespassing. So, if I was throwing the football around with my son in my backyard and the ball went into my neighbor’s yard, would my neighbor be responsible if his dog bit me when I crossed into his yard to pick up the football?

Let me give you some of the basics about Ohio dog bite law before I zero in on your question. Under Ohio law, the owner, keeper, or harborer of a dog is liable for any injuries caused by the dog. It’s a very strict rule that can have some harsh results. For instance, if my dog, Simon, ran out in front of a car, causing the driver to swerve off the road and hit a tree, I’d be responsible for the driver’s injuries. And that would be true even if a friend was walking Simon for me and he got away when I wasn’t in town. The law imposes strict duties on dog owners, including those who have dogs as headstrong as Simon.

Given the number of dog-bite cases our law office handles, I understand why the law has developed in this way. I’ve represented children who have been scarred for life and adults whose dog-bite injuries have caused them to be hospitalized for days. It would be little solace to those people if the owners could escape liability by saying, "Gee, our dog has never bitten anyone before, so we had no idea this would happen." There’s no such thing as a free bite in the civil arena under Ohio law.

That said, people owning or keeping dogs do have certain defenses. Under the law, it’s a defense if the person who was injured was committing or attempting to commit a criminal trespass, committing or attempting to commit any criminal offense other than a minor misdemeanor, or was teasing, tormenting, or abusing the dog. So, the law includes some common-sense protections for dog owners or keepers in limited circumstances.

The key to your question is whether your neighbor would have a defense because you were considered a trespasser. The Ohio General Assembly amended the law this year to change the defense of trespass to criminal trespass. That could be significant, and I expect the change will be the source of some legal wrangling over the next few years. Prior to the change in the law, a number of courts ruled that the trespass defense was available to dog owners whether the trespass was civil or criminal.

It sounds like a small thing, but it could be crucial in a lot of cases. The distinction lies in the difference between a criminal and civil trespass. Boiled down, someone commits a criminal trespass when they knowingly enter the land or premises of another – without privilege to do so – or remain on the land or premises after receiving notice in some form that they’re on someone else’s property. While there’s more to the criminal code section dealing with trespass, that’s the general gist.

For the purposes of a civil trespass, on the other hand, it doesn’t matter whether the trespasser knew or received notice he was trespassing.

So, let’s look at the distinction using the framework of your question. Let’s say you had to jump a fence to get into your neighbor’s backyard to retrieve the football. It would be hard to say that you didn’t commit a criminal trespass because you knowingly entered your neighbor’s property.

Let’s look at a different scenario. Let’s say you were playing football on someone else’s property and you had no idea where the property line was. If you inadvertently crossed the property line and the property owner’s dog bit you, I would argue that you hadn’t committed a criminal trespass and the dog owner would be liable. Under the old version of the law, it didn’t matter whether you knew where the boundary line was for the purposes of a civil trespass. If you were bitten on someone else’s property and you had no privilege to be there, you were out of luck, at least for purposes of pursuing your claim under the state statute.

As an aside, the concept of privilege is important here. For instance, a letter carrier has the right to enter your property to deliver mail. So the trespass defense wouldn’t apply. Or, in your scenario, if your neighbor had seen the ball go over the fence and waved you over to come get it, you wouldn’t be a trespasser.