An Overview of Rhode Island's Dog Bite Liability Statute

Rhode Island’s law regarding liability for dog bites can be summed up in 10 words: “Strict liability attaches for any injury occurring outside the dog’s enclosure.”  This was the ruling of the Rhode Island Supreme Court in the 2004 case of Johnston v. Poulin.

The dog’s “enclosure” must be something that gives notice to anyone entering the premises that he is entering “upon occupied premises where there may be a dog.”  Wilbur v. Gross.  This means that dog owners should place “Beware of Dog” signs near entrances to the premises.  A picket fence that encloses the entire yard might not be sufficient to give the pedestrian reasonable notice that the premises is occupied by a dog.  Without “signs, fences, gates, or other barriers” and with “nothing to warn the general public that there was a dog running loose on the land” damages may be awarded to the bitten plaintiff by a jury.  Lamoureux v. Davis.

The “dog bite” law applies not only to bites, but to all injuries inflicted by a roaming canine, including scratches.  The law is not limited to injuries to humans.  Rhode Island law extends protection to other dogs, domestic animals, sheep, lamb, cattle, horses, hogs, swine, or fowl. 

Taking a Second Bite

 As a punitive measure, if the dog has previously attacked an individual outside of its enclosure, the second attack must result in double damages against the owner and the destruction of the dog.  The text of RI Gen. Law § 4-13-16 is:

“If any dog kills, wounds, worries, or assists in killing, wounding or worrying, any sheep, lamb, cattle, horse, hog, swine, fowl, or other domestic animal belonging to or in the possession of any person, or assaults, bites, or otherwise injures any person while traveling the highway or out of the enclosure of the owner or keeper of that dog, the owner or keeper of the dog shall be liable to the person aggrieved, for all damage sustained, to be recovered in a civil action, with costs of suit. If afterwards any such damage is done by that dog, the owner or keeper of the dog shall pay to the party aggrieved double the damage, to be recovered in the manner set forth and an order shall be made by the court before whom that second recovery is made, for killing the dog. The order shall be executed by the officer charged with the execution of the order, and it shall not be necessary, in order to sustain this action, to prove that the owner or keeper of the dog knew that the dog was accustomed to causing this damage.”

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