Delaware has detailed laws about proper restraint of a dog, an owner’s liability for dog attacks, and dangerous dogs. This article focuses on the statewide regulations, however, there may also be local, county, and municipal rules to consider in your area. It is important for dog owners to understand their responsibilities and potential liabilities as dog owners. It is also important for people who have been injured in a dog attack to understand their rights as a victim, and how the law can help them to obtain justice and compensation for their injuries.
If you have been injured in a dog attack in Delaware, and you have questions about your legal rights, you can find more information in our Dog Bite FAQs or by contacting one of our experienced dog bite attorneys online or at your local Morris James office.
What laws does Delaware have about dog bites or dog attacks?
Delaware law holds a dog owner liable for any injury, death, or loss to person or property caused by their dog. The laws are broad. They include any damage caused by a dog, not just dog bites, so it could include injuries from being knocked over by a dog or even injuries sustained in a fall while being chased by a dog. Delaware law also includes damage to property, such as a broken fence, a scratched car, a torn-up yard, or a chewed-up designer coat.
There are some exceptions to the rule. A dog owner is not strictly liable for injury or harm caused by their dog if the victim was:
- committing or attempting to commit a trespass or other criminal offense on the property of the dog owner;
- committing or attempting to commit a criminal offense against any person; OR
- teasing, tormenting, or abusing the dog.
Outside of these exceptions, a dog owner is strictly liable for the damage caused by their dog. Strict liability is a specific legal concept that only applies in limited situations. It means that a person does not have to have done anything wrong to be held liable. In this situation, the dog owner does not have to be at fault or have broken any rules to be responsible for the damage caused by their dog. The victim only has to show that the dog owner owned the dog and that the dog caused the injuries or damage.
Delaware also has a specific law that applies if you have been bitten by a dog that is running at large (which basically means that the dog is off its own property and unrestrained.) If a dog bites a person without provocation while running at large, the owner will be fined $100 to $500 for the first offense, and $750 to $1,500 for subsequent offenses (plus costs.)
Does Delaware have laws about restraining dogs?
Delaware has specific laws regarding the restraint and enclosure of dogs. Dogs are not allowed to “run at large” outside at any time in Delaware, and must be secured by an appropriate leash, unless they are on their owner’s property, on another person’s property with permission, or in a vehicle. A dog does not have to be on a leash if it is controlled/controllable by its owner and is a working dog or in a designated off-leash dog park.
If a dog is found running at large, the dog and owner will be reported to the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services, and the owner could be fined $25 to $50 for a first violation, and $50 to $100 for repeat violations. Fines are increased if the dog is a female in heat. As mentioned above, there are also hefty fines for an owner if their dog bites someone when it is running at large.
These laws are particularly relevant if you have been attacked by a dog and are bringing a legal claim based on negligence, which is discussed below.
What are Delaware laws for dangerous dogs?
Dangerous dogs in Delaware are not defined by their breed but by their dangerous behavior. In fact, it is illegal in Delaware to declare a dog potentially dangerous based solely on its breed or perceived breed. Delaware law has different rules for dogs depending on whether they are declared dangerous or potentially dangerous by a Delaware Justice of the Peace.
A dog can be declared dangerous if it:
- Killed or inflicted physical injury or serious physical injury upon a human being;
- Killed or inflicted serious physical injury upon a domestic animal that is on its owner’s property or under the immediate control of its owner; OR
- Inflicted physical injury upon a domestic animal after the dog was already declared potentially dangerous.
A dog can be declared potentially dangerous if it killed or inflicted serious injury upon a person or domestic animal, as above, or if it:
- Chased or pursued a person, including a person on a bicycle, on any property other than the dog owner’s property, with an attacking attitude twice within a 12-month period; or
- Caused physical injury to a domestic animal on its owner's property or in its owner’s control more than once in a 12-month period.
There are exceptions where the victim was committing a crime or was teasing, tormenting, abusing, or assaulting the dog, or where the dog was working or protecting a person who is under attack.
If a dog is declared dangerous or potentially dangerous in Delaware, the owner must comply with certain legal obligations, such as spaying or neutering, liability insurance, proper enclosures and restraints, or a warning sign. An owner is also not allowed to sell or give a dangerous dog to anyone other than the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. If the owner does not comply with these legal obligations, they can be fined anything from $50 to $2,000, depending on which rule was violated and how often.
In some situations, a dog that is declared dangerous may be euthanized. If a dangerous dog injures or kills another person or domestic animal without provocation within a certain time period after the first incident, Delaware law requires that the dog is immediately seized and disposed of.
A dog owner does not have to break any of these rules to be held liable for injuries or damage caused by their dog. However, breaking these rules may be relevant to a legal claim by an injured victim, and may affect the amount of the victim’s compensation.
What legal claims can I bring for a dog attack in Delaware?
A dog owner is strictly liable for any damage caused by their dog, which makes a legal claim by a victim against a dog owner more straightforward. As previously mentioned, the victim only needs to prove that they were injured by the dog, not that the dog owner did anything wrong, which is often the most difficult part of a legal claim. A dog bite attorney can advise you on the specific circumstances of your attack and any potential claim you may have.
Sometimes, a victim of a dog bite can bring a legal claim against a person other than the dog owner for their injuries and losses, such as a dog-walker or doggie daycare. Delaware law only makes the dog owner strictly liable for injuries, but another person may still be liable. Usually, a claim against someone other than the dog owner is based in negligence. In a negligence claim, the victim must prove that they owed the victim a duty of care, that they breached this duty, and that the victim was injured because of that breach. For example, if a doggie daycare does not have a secure external fence and a dog escapes and bites a passing child, the doggie daycare might be held negligent and liable for the injuries to the child. The Delaware regulations about properly enclosing and restraining a dog are useful in such a negligence claim to prove the standard that was expected of any person in charge of the dog, and that the standard was not met. You may hear your attorney refer to this as the legal concept of “negligence per se.” It can be helpful to any legal claim you may bring.
The rules surrounding dog safety and dog bites in Delaware are technical and they change frequently. It is important to get reliable and up-to-date advice from an attorney that you trust. The good news is that the laws in this area are generally favorable to the victim, and many victims obtain significant settlements or awards to compensate them for their physical, emotional, and financial loss as a result of a dog attack.
If you are a victim of a dog bite or dog attack, we can help you to understand your rights under Delaware law, and explain the practicalities of bringing a legal claim. At Morris James, our attorneys have been standing up for victims since we opened our doors in 1932. If you have other questions about dog attacks, contact us online or call us at 302.655.2599 to learn more.