The Residential Exception in the Tennessee Dog Law.

In my last blog, I set out the basics of Tennessee dog law: There is no-free-bite for any dog. This simply means that the dog owner is liable for a victim’s damages even if his/her dog bites someone for the very first time. Like most laws, however, there are exceptions and I laid out several of the minor ones previously. Now comes the biggest exception that works as a great disservice for the unfortunate victim of a dog bite.

The residential exception occurs when a dog bite happens on the dog owner’s property or leased residence. A dog owner is not liable or legally responsible for a victim’s injuries if the attack happened on “residential, farm or non-commercial property.”   The dog owner must be either: 1) the owner of the property; 2) on the property by permission of the owner; or 3) a lawful tenant or lessee on the property. The residential exception is an unfortunate step backward for victims of dog bites.  This recent dog attack on a young girl demonstrates just how devasting dog bites can be.

So, how would the residential exception be applied in a real life situation? Let’s assume the following scenario: Jane and John just moved into a new house and want to have their first dinner party. They invite their friends Mary and Martin to the house. The friends arrive for the party, and are not only greeted by the home owners, but the newest member of the house, Fluffy, a sweet 3 month old Beagle. Fluffy has only been in the house a few weeks and is very protective of her space. Mary sits down in Fluffy’s favorite chair. Fluffy rushes over to Mary, and you guessed it-Fluffy bites Mary who requires immediate medical treatment. End of the happy little dinner party.

Question: When Mary and Martin sue Jane and John as a result of Fluffy’s bite can they recover damages because of Fluffy’s bite? Remember, the residential exception states that the victim cannot recover damages if the bite happened on residential property.

At this point, however, I must mention the exception-to-the-residential-exception: The victim may recover damages under these circumstances if the victim can prove that the dog owner knew or should have known of the dog’s dangerous propensities.

So now here’s the ultimate question:   Are Jane and John free from damages because the incident happened at their residence? Answer: maybe.

Mary and Martin will have to prove that Jane and John knew or should have known of Fluffy’s dangerous propensity. Otherwise, there will not be any damages for Mary and Martin. The only thing we can be fairly sure about is the Mary and Martin will not be coming back to Jane and John’s house anytime soon.

As you can see, dog bite cases are quite fact specific and can become very complicated rather quickly.   The successful outcome of a dog bite case depends upon an accurate knowledge of the law and a thorough investigation of the incident.

Have you ever been bitten or attacked by a dog while at a friend’s house?  Tell me how you handled the situation.

Next time, I’ll focus on the alarmingly high rate of dog bite incidents involving children who are bitten in their home by the family pet.


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