If You Feed A Stray Dog, Are You Responsible If It Bites Someone?

Posted on: 13 October 2015

It's hard not to feel sorry for stray dogs aimlessly wandering the streets looking for someone to love them. After all, many times those dogs are homeless because of the recklessness or carelessness of other people. Unfortunately, if you temporarily house or feed a stray dog, you could be held liable if the dog bites someone, even though you're not officially its owner.

Liability Rests on State Definitions

Your liability for the actions of a stray dog depends on whether your state includes casual or caretaker relationships in its statutes regulating liability for dog owners. Typically, these states divide people into three categories based on how much control and responsibility the individuals have over the dog:

  • Owners – This, of course, is the person who legally owns the dog.
  • Keepers – This group encompasses people who take custody of dogs. The people don't legally own the dogs but agree to care and control them for a period of time. This includes dog sitters, shelters, doggy day care employees, and even family members and friends who agree to watch their loved one's pet.
  • Harborers – These people don't necessarily have control of the dogs, but they do have control over the premises where the dogs take shelter and allow them to be on the property. This category would include businesses who allow dogs to hang out around their stores and people who let stray dogs sleep under a tree in their yard at night.

Not all states recognize all three categories, and some don't differentiate between harborer and keeper. For instance, Ohio has separate definitions for all three categories and you can be held liable for simply letting a dog exist on your property. In Washington, however, harboring and keeping means the same thing and is defined as someone who behaves as though the dog is living in his or her home and attempts to control the dog's actions. To determine you liability, research the laws governing dog ownership and caretaking in your state.

Liability May Be Assigned in Other Ways

Even though you may not be held liable for a dog attack under dog bite laws, an injured person may still be able to hold you responsible using other laws. For instance, if the dog bites a child, you may be held liable using the attractive nuisance doctrine. This doctrine holds property owners liable for injuries caused by hazardous conditions or objects on their land that children find attractive.

Dogs are a very attractive "objects" to children. Regularly feeding a stray dog or putting out food for it could be seen as maintaining a hazardous condition on your land, especially if you have no idea whether the dog is vaccinated against diseases. If a child enters your yard to pet the dog and gets bitten, the parents could successfully sue you for compensation for damages arising from the incident.

In fact, anyone bitten by the dog on your property may be able to sue you using premise liability laws if you're doing something to maintain or encourage the dog's presence in the area. Under premise liability, people you invite or otherwise have permission to be on your property could sue you for injuries stemming from an unsafe condition on your property that you knew about but failed to adequately contain or warn others about. Letting a stray dog hang around may qualify as an unsafe condition.

Although you may want to help a poor stray dog out by giving it some food, you should avoid doing so unless you are ready to assume complete liability for its actions. It's best to either call animal control to remove the dog or take the animal to a local shelter for assistance.

For more information about how stray dogs affect your liability or help litigating a dog bite case, contact a dog bite attorney in your area.