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Your Dog Protects You, But Does the Law Protect Your Dog?

SOUTH JORDAN, Utah — If you’ve ever been bitten by a dog, you know the pain that comes along with it. In Salt Lake County, at least 2,360 dog bites have been reported since 2017.

Across the country, about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No matter why it happens, Utah is a strict liability state. That means if a dog bites someone, regardless of the circumstances, the dog owner is responsible – even if the dog is protecting you or your property.

South Jordan resident Taylor Sanford found that out a couple of months ago.

Sanford told the KSL Investigators he hired a repairman to fix his sprinkler system. Sanford has two dogs who often play in the backyard, one of them is a Rottweiler named Titan.

Sanford says he asked the repairman through text and over the phone to let him know when he arrived so Sanford could bring the dogs inside.

“[I was] very clear,” said Sanford. “I mean very specifically, ‘let me know when you get here so I can bring the dogs in.’”

Sanford says the repairman never notified him upon arrival, and when he walked through two fences and into the backyard unannounced, Titan bit him on the upper thigh.

“He said, your dog got me,” explained Sanford. “It was a shock. We always knew it was a possibility, he’s a Rottweiler.”

After the bite, Sanford had several text conversations with the repairman, who sent photos of the bite.

The repairman also used those photos to file a report with the city, claiming he was losing work. He hired a lawyer and filed an insurance claim.

When the KSL Investigators reached out to the sprinkler repairman, he referred us to his attorney, who did not respond to our requests.

“But it wasn’t my fault,” said Sanford, “it was his fault for disobeying my direction.”

According to Utah law, regardless of those directions, Sanford was responsible.

Section 18-1-1 of the Utah State Code reads: “Every person owning or keeping a dog shall be liable in damages for injury committed by the dog, and it shall not be necessary in any action brought therefor to allege or prove that the dog was of vicious or mischievous disposition or that the owner or keeper of the dog knew that it was vicious or mischievous.”

Which means signs don’t matter, fences don’t matter, chaining-up the dog doesn’t matter; even if someone is trespassing on your property without your permission, it does not matter. The owner of the dog is always at fault.

“You are responsible for everything your dog does,” said Deann Shepherd with the Humane Society of Utah.

But Shepherd told the KSL Investigators she doesn’t believe Utah law is specific enough.

What if the person who got bit provoked your dog? What if your dog was protecting you?

“If somebody came onto your premises to break into your home, and your dog defended your home and bit them, if they were to come around and take you to civil court for damages, they could do that,” said Shepherd.

Most dog bite cases never make it to court. They are generally settled through insurance companies.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, there were 18,522 dog bite claims nationwide in 2017.

The average amount paid out for those claims was $37,051 per bite, totaling more than $686 million in liability claims.

Some believe strict liability laws, like we have in Utah, contribute to those high claims.

“I just think that’s an area of law we need to address,” said state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan.

Fillmore believes the current law is outdated. He plans to draft a bill protecting dog owners from liability if the person injured or bit was trespassing.

A rough draft of the bill reads, “An owner or keeper of a dog is not liable for an injury caused by the dog if the injured person was trespassing at the time of the injury.”

“What we’re going to do is remove strict liability,” said Fillmore, “so that judges have the ability to look at the entirety of the circumstance.”

He hopes to push the bill through during the legislative session in January 2019.

In the end, Sanford’s insurance settled the claim for an undisclosed amount of money.

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