South Carolina Dog Bite Law

A dog bite victim in South Carolina can recover compensation under a special statute and the doctrines of negligence, negligence per se, scienter, and intentional tort. The dog bite statute covers both the owner of the dog and the person having the dog in his or her care or keeping, and applies to bites and other losses from being attacked by a dog.

Statutory liability

South Carolina has a modern dog bite statute which makes a dog owner strictly liable for damages suffered by a person who is “bitten or otherwise attacked.” The statute is unusual in a single respect, because it sets forth the provocation defense. Here is the text of South Carolina Statutes section 47-3-110:

SECTION 47-3-110. Liability of owner or person having dog in his care or keeping.

Whenever any person is bitten or otherwise attacked by a dog while the person is in a public place or is lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog or other person having the dog in his care or keeping, the owner of the dog or other person having the dog in his care or keeping is liable for the damages suffered by the person bitten or otherwise attacked. For the purposes of this section, a person bitten or otherwise attacked is lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog or other person having the dog in his care or keeping, when the person bitten or otherwise attacked is on the property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him by the laws of this State, by the ordinances of any political subdivision of this State, by the laws of the United States of America, including, but not limited to, postal regulations, or when the person bitten or otherwise attacked is on the property upon the invitation, express or implied, of the owner of the property or of any lawful tenant or resident of the property. If a person provokes a dog into attacking him then the owner of the dog is not liable.

Common law liability based on “scienter” aka the one bite rule

The essential elements of the scienter cause of action are that (1) prior to the date of a dog bite incident, the dog had the unusually dangerous tendency to injure people by biting them, and (2) before the dog bite incident, the owner, harborer or keeper of the dog knew or should have known about the its tendency to injure people by biting them. (See The One Bite Rule.)

South Carolina essentially follows the common law in its implementation of the scienter cause of action:

It is the rule in this State that domestic animals are not presumed to be dangerous to persons, and before recovery of damages may be had against the owner, the injured party must prove that the particular animals was of a dangerous, or vicious nature, and that his dangerous propensity was either known, or should have been known to the owner. The negligence that imposes liability upon the owner is the keeping of a dangerous animal with knowledge of its dangerous tendencies, or in the failure to restrain it from injuring persons … (Giles v. Russell, 225 S. Ct. 513, 180 S.E. (2d) 201 (1971). Also see McQuaig v. Brown, 270 S.C. 512, 242 S.E. (2d) 688 (1978) and Conoley v. Riel, 279 S.C. 521, 309 S.E. (2d) 291 (1983).)

The statement of the rule in Giles is similar to the common law but not the same. The first difference is the reference to the “nature” of the dog. There are breeds that are dangerous and even vicious by their nature, the primary and obvious one being the pitbull. The rule set forth in Giles would appear to apply to such breeds. The second difference is the reference to the “owner.” The traditional one bite rule covers the owner, harborer or keeper of the dog. Giles referred only to the owner and not the harborer or keeper of the dog.

The degree of knowledge required under the common law rule is slight. In Hossenlopp v. Cannon, 285 S.C. 367, 371 (1985), the state supreme court found that the dog owner’s following admission established the requisite degree: the prior bite resulted in “… a little small scratch mark right here on the inside of his arm. I immediately took the child into my bathroom, I took a Q-tip, some alcohol and I attempted to clean — it was just a small amount of dry blood. I attempted to clean it. There was not enough blood to even pink the Q-tip.”

See Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA for an overview of the other available causes of action.

Landlord liability for dog bite

When a dog attack takes place on one of the common areas of multi-family premises, the landlord will be held liable for common law negligence if he had advance knowledge that the dog was vicious and failed to remedy the situation. (Clea v. Odom,  714 S.E.2d 542, 394 S.C. 175 (2011).) He also will be held liable if he exercised control over the premises and assumed some duty to care for or keep the dog. (Ibid.)

However, a landlord who was not an owner or custodian of the attacking dog will not be held liable for a canine-inflicted injury which takes place on a tenant‘s property, where the dog was being kept. (Harris v. Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, 381 S.C. 357, 365-366, 673 S.E.2d 423, 427 (2009); Gilbert v. Miller, 356 S.C. 25, 586 S.E.2d 861 (Ct. App. 2003) (circuit court granted summary judgment on negligence claim, finding landlord was not liable where one tenant’s dog attacked another tenant); Bruce v. Durney, 341 S.C. 563, 534 S.E.2d 720 (Ct. App. 2000) (landlord was not liable where a dog kept on tenant’s leased property bit a child).

Lawsuit against insurance company for not settling a claim

South Carolina courts have held that an insurance company has an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing in every insurance contract, and that this duty extends to the settlement of claims. If an insurer unreasonably refuses to settle a claim, it may be liable for consequential damages in a tort action. Additionally, an insurer has a duty to settle a personal injury claim if it is the reasonable thing to do, and if it fails to do so, it may be liable for the entire amount of the judgment against the insured, regardless of policy limits.

The South Carolina Supreme Court has said, “This Court has recognized in numerous opinions that an insurer must act reasonably and in good faith in defending its insured.” Reeves v. S.C. Mun. Ins. & Risk Fin. Fund (S.C. 2021) 434 S.C. 18, 34. The Court explained, “This duty includes the insurer’s obligation to settle a lawsuit against its insured within policy limits if it is unreasonable to refuse to do so. ” Reeves v. S.C. Mun. Ins. & Risk Fin. Fund (S.C. 2021) 434 S.C. 18, 34. Furthermore, the Court cautioned, “We also recognized an insurer may be liable for consequential damages in addition to the amount of the excess judgment if the insurer acts in bad faith to the insured in some respect other than protecting the insured from an excess judgment.” Reeves v. S.C. Mun. Ins. & Risk Fin. Fund (S.C. 2021) 434 S.C. 18, 35.