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Beware of Dog: Can a Sign Relieve You of Liability for a Dog Bite?

Florida Statute § 767.04 seems fairly harsh at first glance; except in cases where a dog bite victim ‘asked for it’ or provoked the dog, Owners of dogs are liable for harm done by their pet. It’s a theory of Tort law called ‘Strict Liability,’ which is exactly what is sounds like; you may be responsible for committing an action (or for your dog committing an action) regardless of what your mental state or intent was. Seems like there is not much room for error there, and yet, there are many situations in which the Owners of dogs do not owe a dime, even though their dog bit another person or animal.

One such loophole lies within the same statute, and reads “nor shall any such owner be so liable if at the time of any such injury he had displayed in a prominent place on his premises a sign easily readable including the words “BAD DOG.”

This theory is put to the test in Romfh v. Berman, 56 So.2d 127, 129 (Fla. 1952). Here, Berman willingly entered the property of Romfh and was awfully upon the premises as an invitee. While on the property, Berman’s two dogs attacked and bit Berman, forcing him to take shelter in a tree. Berman did nothing to provoke the dogs, however the court ruled that, because of the locality of the sign and Berman’s ability to read it, Berman assumed the risk and was guilty of contributory negligence.

Interestingly, the later case of Flick v. Malino, 374 So. 2d 89 (Fla. 5th DCA 1979), the court narrowed this decision, and held that Flick, a 3 year old girl who was attacked by the dogs owned by Malino, was entitled to recover, because she could not read the “BAD DOG” signs posted on the property. ” the purpose of the statutory sign requirement is to give “genuine, effective and bona fide” notice “that a bad dog is on the premises.” Carroll v. Moxley , 241 So.2d 681, 683 (Fla. 1970) ; see also Romfh v. Berman , 56 So.2d 127, 129 (Fla. 1951), overruled in part by Sweet v. Josephson , 173 So.2d 444 (Fla. 1965) (“The sole purpose of the legend was to put one entering the premises on notice that there were dangerous dogs on the place.”). “Not every sign, even if seen, is sufficient to put a potential victim on notice of the risk he assumes by being present on the premises.” Carroll, 241 So.2d at 683. Basically, if the victim is too young to read the sign, the risk is not assumed and the “BAD DOG” exception does not apply.

One of the more well-known circumstances in which liability could not be avoided arises from the well-known case of Stickney v. Belcher Yacht, Inc., 424 So.2d 962 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1983); The “Beware of Dog” sign. The facts of this case were as follows: Belcher Yacht had a security dog with a dog handler, a security guard named Herner. There was a prominently posted “BEWARE OF DOG” sign on the premises. Herner had no training regarding the handling of the security guard dog. Stickney and some friends entered the Belcher Yacht premises on a Sunday to take his boat out for a fishing trip; the premises were locked but was instructed to enter the premises through the rear guardhouse. After entering the premises, Stickney discovered the keys for his boat were missing, so Stickney walked to the guard house to retrieve them where he was greeted by Herner and the security dog. Long story short, Stickney was bitten by the guard dog in a very…. sensitive area of his anatomy. When Stickney filed suit the issue, of course, was whether the “BEWARE OF DOG” sign shielded Belcher Yacht from liability for the security dog’s bite. The court ruled against Belcher, stating that an economic invitee who is bitten by a dog while on the premises is liable to his customer.

From a legal perspective, if you are a dog owner it would behoove you to take steps to protect yourself in case of a dog bite. L. Turner Law recommends two steps to protect yourself from lawsuits: 1) post the “BAD DOG” sign, even if you don’t think your dog is necessarily “bad”. Many dog bites are situational; and 2) inform you rental insurance or homeowners’ insurance that you have a pet. A huge amount of coverage can be available for a nominal monetary line item on your policy. If you are the owner of a dog that bites, do not despair; L. Turner Law is here to manage and reduce your liability.