Tennessee Dog Bite Law 101

LickingDogTennessee Dog Bite Law 101

If you own a dog, you need to know the law. Dogs can be our best friend and a source of companionship. But, dog ownership also brings with it the potential for dire financial consequences as well as criminal charges if your dog is out of control.

First, a bit a history so you can see where we’ve been. Before 2007, the victim of a dog bite had to prove that the dog owner knew or should have known of the vicious or aggressive nature of the dog, for example, the dog had bitten someone previously. In other words, the dog got one-free-bite before the owner was liable for damages to the victim. This made for some very unfortunate cases in which a dog bit someone for the first time, but the victim could not recover any damages because this was the dog’s first bite. The current law pretty much eliminates that problem. Consider this situation: a dog has never shown any dangerous tendencies previously and has never bitten anyone. On this day, however, the dog bites a man. The dog owner may be liable for the victim’s damages even though it’s the dog’s first bite. In short, the present law essentially nullifies the one-free-bite rule in Tennessee.

Today, the law requires that the dog owner do two things: 1) keep the dog under reasonable control at all times, and 2) keep the dog from running at large. If the victim is able to prove that the dog owner failed to satisfy either requirement, then the victim may recover damages in a civil action. Damages in a dog bite case are commonly expenses incurred in the present and future treatment of the injuries and money for the pain and suffering of the victim. The dog owner may also be guilty of criminal charges for the same acts that resulted in civil damages.

So now we know that the general rule is that every dog does not get one-free-bite, but there are several exceptions in which the victim of the dog’s first bite cannot recover damages: 1) a trespasser on private, nonresidential property; 2) injuries sustained from a police/military dog in the course of the dog’s duties; 3) a dog protecting its guardian or a third party; 4) a dog confined in a kennel, crate or proper enclosure; and, 5) the provocation or harassment of a dog.   For the most part, these situations are rather logical and common sense, for instance, you can’t tease a dog, get bitten and expect to receive damages.

Now, unfortunately, comes the biggest and most unwelcome exception to the no-free-bite rule at the expense of the victim. It is known as the “residential exception” and allows the dog owner to escape liability for a dog bite under certain conditions. Statistics from the insurance industry reveal that more than 50% of dog bites occur on residential property and often by the family pet or a dog which is familiar to the victim. Despite the high rate of dog bites on residential property, Tennessee is the only state to enact the residential exception to protect the owner from liability.

In my next article, I’ll discuss the residential exception in more detail and provide some strategies for overcoming this hurdle at trial.


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 may be contacted at TennDogBiteLaw.com.


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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