Note: This blog is not a substitute for legal advice.
When dealing with dogs (or any domesticated animal), an owner may face potential liability for injuries caused by his/her dog. Many of you often wonder if hanging a “Beware of Dog” sign and good idea? Does hanging the sign admit that you believe your dog to be dangerous? Are you just hanging it to scare away potential unknown visitors and your little puppy would never hurt a fly? Let’s look first at the theories of liability you can be sued under and how the Maryland courts have treated “Beware of Dog” signs in the past.
Maryland’s courts have adopted two theories for recovery of damages from domesticated animals. The first theory, strict liability, requires that the injured party must demonstrate you knew or should have known that the animal had the natural tendency to commit the particular act that was the cause of harm. Basically, you, as the owner, knew about a similar injury committed by the animal in the past or that you should have known about a natural tendency to commit the kind of act the animal is accused of committing. For example, the Maryland Court of Appeals has found pit bulls are naturally dangerous and owners will be held strictly liable for any damages.
The second theory is negligence. With negligence, the injured party would need to show you were aware of fact the animal had a tendency to mischievous and you failed to exercise reasonable care in controlling the animal or reasonable care in preventing the harm caused. For example, you take inexperienced riders out for a trail ride one day and pay no attention to the riders. One of the riders is thrown and injured. In this case, you potentially face liability if it is shown another person in your situation would have paid better attention to the inexperience rider (This will depend on the facts of each case).
With all that said, does hanging a “Beware of Dog” sign demonstrate you know the dog has a natural tendency to be vicious? In a review of dog bite cases, the Maryland Court of Appeals has never directly ruled on this exact question. In the one case that did discuss a “Beware of Dog” sign, the Court of Special Appeals found that the hanging of “Beware of Dog” signs in obvious locations demonstrated that the plaintiff had assumed the risk of entering the building. Other states’ courts in dealing with this issue have found “Beware of Dog” signs to be just factors to consider but not the deciding factor. Those bitten by a dog would still need to demonstrate that the dog had attacked like this before and you knew or should have known about it. Although not the deciding factor, a “Beware of Dog” sign is just one factor to be considered if your dog bites someone and in some cases may demonstrate assumption of the risk, depending on the facts of the case. In a future post, we will discuss assumption of the risk in more detail.
One special note, this would not apply to pit bulls which the Court of Appeals has ruled previously are inherently dangerous (meaning your knowledge that your pit bull is dangerous is not necessary and just because it is a pit bull we will assume it is dangerous).