The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld the contentious “One Bite” law that Rhode Island still adheres to regarding dog bites. Although the majority of other States have switched to strict liability regarding dog bites (i.e. the owner always must take responsibility for the actions of his dog) Rhode Island still continues to allow owners one “chance” before they are necessarily responsible to a dog bite victim. Dog bites often cause serious injury and under Rhode Island law, determining fault can be quite difficult so it is important to discuss your case with an experienced dog bite attorney.
In the opinion, Chief Justice Suttell explains the current law well:
If injuries are suffered within an owner’s enclosed area, the strict-liability statute does not apply, but rather the common law continues to apply and dictates that the plaintiff first must prove that the defendant knew about the dog’s vicious propensities, a … requirement commonly known as the ‘one-bite rule’….
In Rhode Island, a dog owner is always responsible for biting a victim IF AND ONLY IF the dog is outside of the home or his “enclosure”. In those cases, the owner of the animal will be responsible for your medical bills, lost wages and pain suffering including the scar, if any. If, however, the accident happens inside the home or the animals “enclosure” then the common law applies. Rhode Island State law defines an “enclosure” as “a fence, physical obstruction or any other condition that gives reasonable notice to third parties that the area is private.” This means that in order to collect damages you must be able to show that the dog owner KNEW the animal was dangerous and was negligent in allowing the dog around people it could potentially attack. Under Rhode Island law, the owner of the dog knows it is dangerous if it has ever bitten someone in the past (hence the name of the “One Bite” rule), or if it is of a particularly dangerous breed such as a pit bull or akita.
In this case, a State inspector went to the backyard of the homeowner to look at a pigeon coop. While in the backyard the homeowners dog attacked the inspector seriously injuring him. The defense moved to have the case dismissed citing that the dog had never previously attacked anyone. The defense motion was granted and the Supreme Court has upheld the decision pointing to the Rhode Island “One Bite” law. Justice Suttell pointed out that Rhode Island’s dog bite laws are well settled and that any changes to the law should come from the State assembly rather than the Courts. (I always feel that when Judges include that language in their opinions that they believe the law might be wrong and are secretly nudging the State Assembly to make changes.)
Interestingly, Justice Robinson, who dissented from Justice Suttell’s opinion, pointed out that the dog in question was almost three feet tall and that the jury could conclude the owner should have known that such a large dog was inherently dangerous by his size alone. In so doing, Judge Robinson was not trying to change Rhode Island law but instead offered that even under current law, the case could go to a jury. Instead, the case was thrown out because the dog in question, who has since been euthanized, had never previously attacked anyone.