The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) reports that there are approximately 4.7 million reported dog bites every year in the United States. Not surprisingly, many dog owners have questions about what would happen if their dog caused an injury to another person.
Massachusetts General Law c. 140, § 155 states in part that if “any dog shall do any damage to either the body or property of another person, the owner or keeper…shall be liable for such damage….” Therefore, under the statute, the owner or keeper will be held liable for harm caused by the dog without requiring any further proof of negligence or other wrongdoing by the owner/keeper. This law applies liability to both “owners” and “keepers” of dogs. Case law in Massachusetts has defined a “keeper” of a dog to include people who exercise “care, custody, or control” over a dog. Therefore, a dog sitter, veterinarian or other person who temporarily has assumed custody or control over a dog could potentially be considered a “keeper” liable for injuries.
An owner and/or a keeper could be held liable for any damage to a person or property caused by a dog, not only harm caused by an actual bite. Under the language used in the statute, an owner or keeper of a dog could be liable for injuries caused by scratches, collisions, or unintentional injuries that occur during play. Also, the statute does not require that the dog exhibit some sort of vicious behavior in order to hold the owner/keeper liable for harm. Notably, Chapter 140 includes important exceptions to liability where a dog bite occurs after a dog has been teased, tormented, or abused by the injured party. M.G.L. c. 140, § 155.