Residential Exception

Funny postman & dogResidential Exception

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 backwards for victims of dog bites.

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-the dog 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 let’s look at that question again:   Are Jane and John immune 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 very 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.

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.

Jonathan R. Stephens lives in East Nashville and has been practicing general civil law for over 20 years. He is a member of the Executive Council of the Tennessee Bar Association Animal Law Section. Mr. Stephens is available for speaking engagements and may be contacted at

The content in this article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice. Contacting an attorney does not create an attorney-client relationship.  If you need specific legal advice for a case or potential case, you should retain an attorney directly rather than relying on this article. 

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