Dog Bite Laws Delaware

Dog bite laws as they apply to the state of Delaware

Delaware dog bite laws offer plenty of protections to victims because, in the state, a “dog’s history of bites” is not a factor when the judge awards compensation.

That means the victim does not have to prove that the dog had vicious propensities, which is common in many states.  What typically happens after a dog bite in Delaware is the victim may file a personal injury claim against the owner and recover economic and non-economic damages.  But the process is not as straightforward as it sounds, and protections exist for dog owners too.

Is Delaware a strict liability state?

Yes, Delaware has been a strict liability state since 1770. 11 DE Code § 264 contains a mitigation provision that says:

When causing a particular result is an element of an offense for which strict liability is imposed by law, the element is not established unless the actual result is a probable consequence of the actor’s conduct.”

This means Delaware dog bite laws hold the owner of a dog that bites or injures someone strictly liable unless the cause of the bite was the victim’s actions.  For example, the law will not hold you liable if your dog bites a trespasser.  But you are liable to pay if your dog injures or attacks anyone who is or was on your property legally.  So says Del. C. § 913.

The owner of a dog is liable in damages for any injury, death or loss to person or property that is caused by such dog, unless the injury, death or loss was caused to the body or property of a person who, at the time, was committing or attempting to commit a trespass or other criminal offense on the property of the owner, or was committing or attempting to commit a criminal offense against any person, or was teasing, tormenting, or abusing the dog”.

What dog owners in Delaware should take note of is there are no “free bites” in Delaware.  Meaning, even if the dog has never bitten someone or acted aggressively in the past, the law will still hold the owner liable.

What to remember:

  • The victim must prove the owner’s negligence.  For example, letting the dog run wild or not leashing it while in public space may give the victim avenue to recover compensation for medical bills, permanent injury, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and so on.
  • Delaware dog bite laws cover all dog-related injuries (human and non-human), and not just bites.   
  • The victim may file a claim under the doctrine of negligence, negligence per se, or scienter.
  • International tort dictates that anyone who uses a dog as a weapon is liable for any damages that result.

What Laws Protect Dog Bite Victims In Delaware?

How does scienter work in Delaware?

The legal term “scienter” refers to a domestic animal owner’s knowledge of the animal’s vicious nature.  That means if the victim proves that the owner of the dog that bit him/her had knowledge of the dog’s dangerous nature, then the victim does not have to show the owner’s negligence to recover damages.

Delaware Dog negligence laws

Delaware negligence laws work under the presumption that dog owners in the state owe a duty or standard of care to residents.  Consequently, if you fail to practice that level of care, say keep your dog leashed while in a public setting.  Then the law will hold you liable for any injuries that result.

Delaware negligence laws work as demonstrated below:

Duty>breach of duty> cause>proximate cause (facts)> harm.

The dog owner here, as mentioned above, owes a duty to a potential victim.  If he or she breaches that duty, then the law holds him/her liable.  Also, Delaware adheres to comparative negligence/ the 50% rule.  Therefore, the victim may only recover compensation if he/she is not more than 50% responsible for the injury or damage.

Negligence per se in Delaware

Delaware’s doctrine of “negligence per se” dictates that a dog must not run free unless when accompanied by the owner or on the owner’s property.  In public, the dog owner must keep the dog under reasonable control even when unleashed.

The victim may prove “Negligence Per Se” by showing that the dog or property owner failed to respect, or violated a regulation, or law that is in place for safety reasons.  For example, if you are at the park and you see a sign that tells you to keep your dog leashed at all time and you ignore it.  Then you are in violation of the park’s or state’s regulations.  Meaning, any victim may file a case against you under the doctrine of negligence per se.

What is a dangerous dog in Delaware?

Delaware’s definition of a dangerous dog is “any dog that in the last year has chased a person on two separate occasions, or one that has killed or injured a human or domestic animal.”

16 DE Code § 3071F, allows animal welfare to impound or seize any dog suspected of being a danger to the public if it engages in any of the following acts.

  1. Kill or inflict serious injury on a human or domestic animal.
  2. Chase and pursue a person even if that person was riding a bike.

Exceptions to Delaware’s dangerous dog standards

The state of Delaware will not take your dog or label it dangerous if the dog inflicts injury on a person/animal under the following circumstances.

  • A person who at the time of the bite was trespassing, assaulting, abusing, tormenting, or a person on your property that is intending to commit a crime or was committing a crime.
  • An animal that at the time of the bite was tormenting, teasing, or abusing the dog

It is also worth mentioning that if a dog bites a domestic animal while working as a predator control dog, or herding /hunting dog, the law will not hold the owner liable.

The Town of Bridgeville breed-specific law: are pit bulls illegal in Delaware?

84 Bridgeville  DE Code § 84-1 contains a mitigation provision that says:

It shall be unlawful for any person to keep within the Town any animal which shall, by barking, whining, howling or otherwise, disturb the peace, and quiet of any person, or which becomes a nuisance or destructive to property, or which has bitten or attempted to bite any person, or which threatens to become a public nuisance or destructive to property, or is in any other manner dangerous to the health, safety, or general welfare of persons in the Town”.

In 2017, the town of Bridgeville revised the town code that automatically listed pit bulls as dangerous dogs.  Before the revision, pit bull owners had to register the animal.

That means, today, Delaware does not have breed-specific laws.

What to remember:

  • Wilmington City no longer requires pit bull owners to register or acquire a dog license.
  • Owners of dangerous dog breeds must build enclosures that prevent young kids from entering and the dog from escaping.
  • If Animal Welfare determines that a dog is or is potentially dangerous, then the agency may seize or impound the dog.
  • If Animal Welfare does not identify the owner of a seized dog within five days, the department may euthanize the dog if other options do not exist.

Also, if the court declares a dog dangerous, the owner must:

  1. Neuter or spay the dog.
  2. The owner must maintain at least a $100000 liability insurance cover.
  3. Ensure that the dog cannot escape its enclosure or the chain must not exceed 6 feet.
  4. The dog owner must put up a “dangerous dog” sign in his/her yard or property.
  5. The law also restricts the sale, gifting, or transfer of dangerous dogs.
  6. If the court declares the dog to be non-dangerous, then the owner is not liable to pay impound costs.
  7. The penalties are severe if the dog has a “history of biting” (the victim may recover full compensation for economic and non-economic damage).

What if my dog bites a child in Delaware?

When a dog bites a child in Delaware, the victim, depending on circumstances is entitled to recover hospital bills and/or compensation for disfigurement.  Disfigurement here also includes scarring or an injury that results in the impairment of an organ.

Overall, if your dog bites someone and causes serious injury, it is in the owner’s best interest to contact a dog bite defense attorney.  Also, to lessen your liability, take all reasonable steps to confine the animal or keep it under control.

For the victim, an attorney will help you establish liability, thus make it easier to recover compensation. Just make sure that your actions did not cause the bite and that you were on the property legally at the time of the bite.

If you are a dog/property owner in Delaware, -we recommend that you purchase or maintain a liability insurance cover.  It is not a legal requirement, but it is a smart investment that will keep you from paying a potential victim out of pocket.

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