Criticism of the One Bite Rule

The one bite rule was announced by British judges in the 1600s, and it has no place in modern America.

Every dog bite has consequences. Every victim suffers, not just the ones who were bitten by a dog that bit a person before. Every medical bill must be paid, every ambulance company sends out its invoice, every pharmacy has a cash register.

The “one bite rule” was announced centuries ago, in pastoral England, when dogs, hogs, mules and sheep wandered aimlessly through towns, as a normal part of life. In those long-gone days, judges announced that the owner of a domestic animal would not be held liable until it bit someone first. There was no need for people to be vigilant about their animals because the law did not require people to take any level of responsibility until after a tragedy occurred.

This was centuries before the development of the pit bull and the passage of the first animal cruelty laws. It was a time when it was not illegal for your dog to wander to another person’s property, and not illegal for that person to beat your dog or even kill it if need be. It was a time when there was no homeowners or renters insurance. It was a time when the USA and its principles of human rights did not even exist.

The one bite rule tells the people that it is okay for their dog to bite someone, once. That they are not responsible for it. That there is no consequence when it happens. That they can look the other way. Shrug it off. Forget about it.

The “one bite” rule has been roundly criticised by scholars and appellate judges, who have called for its repeal. “A dog should have no greater right to a first bite than one has to a first murder. And as between the dog owner and a blameless victim, the owner is almost certainly in the better position to judge the dog’s proclivity to bite. Yet, under the ‘first bite’ paradigm, one may be subjected, without recourse, to an animal’s first attack, and that animal’s owner has little incentive to guard against this potentially deadly event.” Ruffin, J, concurring specially in Clark, et al., v. Joiner, 242 Ga. App. 421 (2000).

In modern America, our ideas about personal responsibility are far different. We believe that every one of us must be responsible for the harm that we might cause, and that might be caused by our things, our employees and our children, under our “watch.”

We have developed far more equitable rules for determining fault and spreading risk. We also have created breeds of dog specifically for the purpose of killing, and animal cruelty laws that deter the rule-abiding citizen from defending himself and his family. The number of people being seriously injured and killed by dogs is rising steadily. (See Statistics.)

Because the one bite rule is clearly out of touch with American ideals, it has been rejected by the vast majority of American states and the District of Columbia. They have passed legislation that either wholly or partially supplants the “one bite rule,” imposing strict liability on dog owners for dog bites, including the first bite. There is no “free bite” in those jurisdictions. (See Legal Rights of a Dog Bite Victim, which lists the states that have rejected the rule, contains links to the dog bite statutes throughout the USA.)

The one bite rule needs to be repealed everywhere. It needs to be replaced with a statute that makes every dog owner, keeper or harborer legally liable for any and all injuries caused by his or her dog, other than injuries that result from provocation or are inflicted upon a trespasser. If dog owners know that there will be consequences for every bite, then they will be less inclined to permit their dogs to roam, and there will be fewer injuries.

It is now essential for every state to demand from its dog owners not the level of responsibility appropriate for the citizens of an English town 400 years ago, but of modern America. When “defendants realize that they may be held liable, there is of course a strong incentive to prevent the occurrence of the harm. Not infrequently one reason for imposing liability is the deliberate purpose of providing that incentive.” Prosser and Keeton on The Law of Torts, 4 at 25-26 (5th ed. 1984).