Under Vermont common law, a dog owner is not liable for injuries to persons and property unless the owner had some reason to know the animal was a probable source of danger. Where the owner knows that the dog is dangerous, she or he has a duty to exercise reasonable control and restraint of the dog to avoid injury to others. In other words, a dog must have shown vicious propensities for a dog owner to be liable for any damages caused by a dog bite or other harm caused by a dog. Some people have characterized the Vermont rule as a dog being entitled to its first bite (presuming of course it had not shown any prior vicious propensities).

This longstanding common law doctrine was challenged in a case known as Martin v. Christman, which was decided by the Vermont Supreme Court on June 13, 2014. The court noted the following in its decision:

The single issue raised by this appeal is whether we should change the common-law rule requiring proof of a dog owner’s negligence as the sole basis for liability for personal injuries inflicted by the dog. In the face of longstanding precedent, both in Vermont and in the United States in general, we decline to change the substantive law by judicial decision. The decision of the trial court is affirmed.

Essentially, the court decided that it is up to the Legislature to change the law. Several bills have been introduced in the Vermont Legislature since this decision was issued, but none have become law.

Martin v. Christman is a particularly tragic case. On July 3, 2009, Michaela and David Martin and their three-year-old daughter, Gracie, spent the day at a campsite that the family rents on a seasonal basis at a campground in Island Pond, Vermont. Defendants John and Joanna Christman rented a campsite near the Martins. As long-term campers, the families were friendly with one another.

Michaela took Gracie to a playground adjacent to the Christmans’ site. She was watching Gracie from a nearby picnic table. The Christmans were camping with two of their boxer dogs, one of which was a two-year-old male named Diesel. They had a table of their own which was sheltered with a gazebo. Joanna Christman tied Diesel to a pole supporting the gazebo. Gracie Martin asked John Christman if she could pet Diesel, and he said that she could. Without warning, Diesel attacked Gracie, knocking her to the ground and biting her face. John Christman forced his dog to let go of the child. The Martins took Gracie to the North Country Hospital in Newport, where she received surgery to repair her wounds.

The Martins brought suit against the Christmans on several legal theories, including strict liability and negligence. Strict liability is a rule of law which makes a person legally responsible for the damage and loss caused by her or his acts and omissions, regardless of culpability or negligence. The trial court granted the Christmans’ motion to dismiss the strict liability claim on the grounds that existing Vermont precedent required proof of negligence to recover against a dog owner for damages caused by his or her dog.

The Vermont Supreme Court went on to state that Vermont law has long required proof of an owner’s negligence to establish liability for injuries caused by dog bites. The court noted a Vermont Supreme Court decision from 1880 which upheld a verdict in favor of a boy bitten by a shopkeeper’s bull terrier, described at trial as “the most wickedest kind of dog.” Liability depended upon evidence that the dog was known to be “exceptionally fierce and ferocious” and had attacked other animals. The court did not require evidence of a prior attack upon a human.

The law as noted in the Supreme Court’s 1880 decision remains the law in Vermont today. Apparently, Diesel had shown no prior vicious propensities, either to other dogs or animals or human beings. Indeed, John Christman told Gracie it was fine to pet Diesel. While the Vermont Supreme Court noted that perhaps a change in law is warranted, it went on to state that it should be left to the Legislature, which is better positioned to develop and consider relevant factors such as the number of dogs and dog owners in Vermont, the number and nature of injuries caused by dogs in Vermont, and whether liability insurance is available to cover dog bites. The court did recognize the seriousness of Gracie’s injury and her innocence of fault. However, they were not prepared to depart from long-held principles of negligence to create a new field of strict liability. And so far the Legislature has also been unwilling to do so, even though it is obviously within the power of the Legislature to adopt a strict liability standard for dog bites.

Most homeowners insurance policies provide coverage for dog bites.