Oklahoma Law on Dog Bite Liability

Dog bites and attacks can cause serious injuries and even death. As a result, most states have laws imposing liability on dog owners in certain situations. In Oklahoma, a strict liability statute covers dog bite cases, but common law negligence principles also come into play. 
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Oklahoma’s Strict Liability Dog Bite Statute

Oklahoma has a “first bite” strict liability statute for dog bites at 4 O.S. § 42.1. This statute makes dog owners liable for unprovoked bites or attacks on persons lawfully on public or private property. To prevail under this statute, plaintiffs must prove four key elements:

  1. Ownership – Defendant owned the dog.
  2. Lack of provocation – The dog bite victim did not provoke the dog.
  3. Injury – Plaintiff was bitten or injured by the dog.
  4. Lawful presence – Plaintiff was lawfully on the property.

If these elements are met, the owner will be held strictly liable, regardless of whether they knew the dog was dangerous. However, Oklahoma law does recognize some exceptions and limitations to this strict liability standard. For example, absentee landlords with no knowledge of a tenant’s harboring of a vicious dog generally cannot be held liable as “keepers” or “harborers.” The statute also requires an actual bite or injury to the plaintiff – if the dog only attacks another animal, there is no strict liability.

Compared to other states, Oklahoma’s approach tracks the majority in imposing strict liability for dog bites, though some states use a negligence standard instead. Oklahoma’s statute favors bite victims by not requiring proof that owners knew their dog was dangerous. However, the defenses and exceptions may limit recovery in some cases.

“Rural” Exception to Strict Liability

The Oklahoma Statutes, 4 O.S. § 42.3, provide an exception to strict liability if the dog bite occurred in an area that does “not have city or village United States mail delivery service.” Common law negligence principles still apply, though.

Common Law Negligence Principles

In addition to the strict liability statute, Oklahoma common law principles regarding negligent ownership and control of domestic animals still apply in dog bite cases. To recover under a negligence theory, plaintiffs must prove:

– Defendant owed a duty of care,
– Defendant breached this duty, and
– The breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries.

The key factor establishing the duty of care is whether the owner knew or should have known the dog had dangerous tendencies or acted aggressively in the past. This knowledge requirement goes beyond the strict liability statute, which does not consider the owner’s knowledge. But if such knowledge can be shown, negligence may be easier to prove than the elements under the strict liability statute.

Defenses like provocation and assumption of risk may also limit the plaintiff’s recovery under a negligence theory by showing the plaintiff’s comparative fault. Overall, negligence claims provide an additional option for recovery in dog bite cases, especially when the owner’s knowledge of the dog’s vicious propensities can be established.

Potential Defendants and Liability

In addition to individual dog owners, other parties may be liable for dog bites under Oklahoma law, depending on their role and knowledge. These potentially liable defendants include:

  1. Landlords – Generally only liable if they knew of the tenant’s dangerous dog and the danger on the premises. However, absentee landlords are unlikely to be held liable.
  2. Employers/Businesses/Corporations – May be liable if they kept or harbored the dangerous dog with knowledge of its tendencies.
  3. Spouses – If one spouse owns the dog, the other may still be liable as a “keeper” if they live together and know of the dog’s dangerous propensities.

So, while the strict liability statute focuses on “owners,” liability can extend to other entities depending on the circumstances. Assessing the defendant’s custody, control, and knowledge of the dog is key.

Potential Defenses

Several defenses may preclude or limit recovery in Oklahoma dog bite cases:

  1. Provocation – Plaintiff provoked the dog and shares some comparative fault.
  2. Assumption of Risk – Plaintiff voluntarily assumed the risk by interacting with the dog.
  3. Unlawful Presence – Plaintiff was not lawfully on the property when bitten.
  4. Parental Immunity – Plaintiff was the defendant’s unemancipated minor child.

While these defenses do not completely bar liability under the strict statute, they may reduce recovery through comparative negligence. Understanding the available defenses is an important component of liability analysis.

Criminal Penalties

Beyond civil liability, Oklahoma law also imposes criminal penalties for certain dog bite-related conduct under 4 O.S. § 42.4. It is a felony to fail to restrain a known dangerous dog if it then attacks and kills someone. Intentionally releasing a dog to attack law enforcement officers is also a felony. These criminal provisions aim to punish and deter dangerous dog owners due to the significant harm their actions can cause.

Highlighted Oklahoma Case Law History

Ayers v. Macoughtry, 117 P. 1088 (Okla. 1911) – Plaintiff must prove defendant kept a vicious dog with the knowledge to recover for the bite.

McDonald v. Castle, 238 P. 451 (Okla. 1925) – No liability absent proof owner knew of dog’s propensity for biting.

Tidal Oil Co. v. Forcum, 116 P.2d 572 (Okla. 1941) – Employer liable as harborer for employee’s dog bite based on knowledge.

Peerson v. Mitchell, 205 Okla. 530 (Okla. 1951) – Harboring a known vicious dog is willful conduct establishing liability for bites.

Sappington v. Sutton, 501 P.2d 814 (Okla. 1972) – Contributory negligence is a valid defense if the plaintiff provoked a dog.

Hunt v. Scheer, 576 P.2d 1190 (Okla. Civ. App. 1977) – Provocation requires an intentional act beyond approaching a dog and is a jury question.

Whitefield v. Stewart, 1978 OK 55 – Strict liability for dogs extends to owners of dangerous exotic pets like monkeys.

Hood v. Hagler, 1979 OK 163 – Outlines four elements plaintiffs must prove under the dog bite statute.

Hampton by and Through Hampton v. Hammons, 1987 OK 77 – Questions of fact whether the landlord was liable for the tenant’s dog bite based on various theories.

HASS v. MONEY, 849 P.2d 1106 (Okla. Civ. App. 1993) – Kennel owner qualified as “owner” under statute based on harboring and knowledge of the dog.

Bishop By and Through Childers v. Carroll, 872 P.2d 407 (Okla. App. 1994) – Absentee landlord not liable as harborer absent knowledge of tenant’s vicious dog.

Robison v. Stokes, 882 P.2d 1105 (Okla. Civ. App. 1994) – No liability for landlord absent knowledge of tenant’s dangerous dog.

Nickell v. Sumner, 1997 OK 101 – The statute requires injury to a human, not just a dog, for strict liability.

Eastin v. Aggarwal, 218 P.3d 523 (Okla. Civ. App. 2009) – The plaintiff must prove the dog escaped premises and other elements to establish a prima facie case under the statute.

Schovanec v. Archdiocese, 2008 OK 70 – Strict liability statute should be construed based on plain language.

Taylor v. Glenn, 231 P.3d 765 (Okla. Civ. App. 2010) – No liability for absentee landlord without knowledge of danger from tenant’s dog.

Archie v. Schonlau, 458 P.3d 1116 (Okla. Civ. App. 2019) – Reviews the four elements for strict liability under the Oklahoma dog bite statute.

Archie v. Schonlau, 2020 OK Civ. App. 9 – Strict liability under the dog bite statute applies to minor plaintiffs but is limited by parental immunity.

Possible Improvements to Oklahoma’s Laws

While Oklahoma’s statutes and case law provide a reasonably comprehensive framework governing dog bite liability, some aspects could be clarified or improved. For example, the definitions of “owner” versus “keeper” or “harborer” are ambiguous in places. Providing more guidance on who qualifies as an owner or keeper would assist plaintiffs and courts in determining liability.

Additionally, modifying the strict liability statute to a pure negligence standard focused on the owner’s knowledge of the dog’s dangerous tendencies may better balance the interests of dog owners and bite victims. Shifting the focus to negligence incorporates comparative fault principles and exposes only owners who acted unreasonably by keeping dogs they knew were dangerous.

Clarifying or modifying Oklahoma’s approach in these areas could fine-tune the law on dog bite liability. The goal should be balancing the accountability of dog owners with the compensation of bite victims.

Oklahoma Law on Dog Bite Liability Resources

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