bite girlThe word “bite” is used in judicial decisions, statutes and local ordinances. Indeed a “bite” is a necessary element for statutory liability in 9 of the 31 jurisdictions that have dog bite statutes. (Footnote 1.) The characterization of the dog’s action as a bite or a swipe of the teeth or claws is of paramount importance to dog bite cases which are based upon these dog bite statutes, a dangerous propensity, or ordinance violations that are based upon biting or bite wounds. The precise meaning of “bite,” however, differs from one jurisdiction to the next.

Where the word “bite” is not defined by a statute or ordinance where the attack happened, courts throughout the USA hold that the dictionary definition of “bite” shall be used. A typical definition of the verb “bite” is “to seize with the teeth so that they enter, grip or wound.” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1993) at p. 222.)

For example, in Johnson v. McMahan (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 173, 176, a man named Johnson was on a ladder, repairing the roof of the McMahans. Suddenly, the McMahans’ dog jumped at him. The dog’s jaws closed on Johnson’s pants. He claimed a part of his leg was also between the jaws, separated by the pants, but the skin was not broken. Johnson fell from the ladder and was injured. The appellate court held that this injury was a bite under the California dog bite statute, which refers to a “bite” but does not define it. The “bite” was the action of the dog in which it closed its mouth upon and gripped the pants of the victim. The court’s reasoning is instructive:

Assuming that plaintiff’s leg was between Timber’s jaws, separated only by the jeans plaintiff was wearing, was there a “bite” even though the skin was not broken or wound inflicted? The commonsense answer is “yes.” The word “bite” (as opposed, for example, to the phrase “bit off”) does not require a puncture or tearing away. We turn to a particularly reliable source: an authoritative dictionary. In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1993) page 222, we find the term defined at length. The first meaning is “to seize with the teeth so that they enter, grip, or wound.” The next variant is “to remove a part of something with the teeth,” and the next: “to seize, pinch, or sever with the jaws.” While piercing the skin may be a common result of a dog bite, there is nothing in the language, plainly read or in its lexicographical meaning, that requires that the skin be broken or a wound inflicted. Johnson v. McMahan (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 173, 176

In fact, some of the most painful dog bite injuries consist of crush wounds to the soft tissues beneath the skin. For example, a victim wearing denim jeans might have a painful crush injury but no broken skin. It seems only fair that the dog owner be responsible for the infliction of such an injury.

There are some jurisdictions, however, that have passed laws which define a “bite” more restrictively, at least for some purposes. In these jurisdictions, a bite requires a puncture or tear of the skin. For example, consider this city ordinance, which leaves out the concept of a “grip” as being a bite:

Las Vegas Municipal Code, section 7.04.100: Bite. “Bite” means a puncture or tear of the skin inflicted by teeth of an animal.

Note that a city ordinance would control only proceedings governed by city law, such as dangerous dog hearings, as opposed to tort actions brought under state law, such as dog bite claims.

In some cases, a party or witness may use the word “nip” to describe a bite. “Nip” is a pejorative word used to minimize the nature and extent of a bite, but which nevertheless means “bite.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 838 (11th ed. 2005), defines “nip” as follows: “to catch hold of and squeeze tightly between two surfaces, edges, or points : PINCH, BITE <the dog nipped his ankle>.” In cases handled by Kenneth M. Phillips, the author of Dog Bite Law, dog owners have used “nip” to describe injuries as severe as the amputation of a person’s nose. When a child witness uses the word “nip,” the cross-examiner should ask whether the child’s parents told him to use that word. See the following example from State of West Virginia v. Michael Blatt (2015) ___ , in which a minor referred to as “N.B.” testified regarding a pit bull attack on “L.L.”:

The Blatts stipulated during the June 17, 2014, hearing that the dog bit L.L. once. During both hearings before the circuit court, the State did not dispute that the dog bit L.L. one time. N.B. was cross-examined regarding his testimony characterizing the bite as a “nip.” He was asked, “So, when you say, you use the word ‘nip’, that’s what your parents told you to use, right?” N.B. replied in the affirmative, explaining, “It means that she did not mean to bite him.”