North Carolinians love dogs so much, we even have a breed named for us, the Carolina dog. So, it’s tough to think much about, when somebody raises a dog to be aggressive or simply fails to control a dog that might become momentarily frightened, injuries can happen.

And injuries from a severe dog bite or attack can be life-changing, extremely harmful or even fatal. Everybody (including dogs) are safer when people are held accountable for their decisions as dog owners.

Is a dog owner responsible for bites?

Some states use a “one bite” rule. Under it, the owner gets one consequence-free bite and then it’s presumed the owner should have known about the dog’s potential to act in a harmful way.

But in North Carolina, owners are “strictly liable” for injuries or property damage in civil court if their dog is a “dangerous dog.”

Strict liability basically means the owner doesn’t have to be at fault or intend to be harmful or negligent. If their dog is a “dangerous dog,” they’re liable for bites.

But what’s a dangerous dog? The definition in the text of the statute is a little complex and interpretation is left to the person or board responsible for animal control in the dog owner’s jurisdiction.

Mainly, a previous severe attack is enough, as is being kept specifically as an attack dog. However, a dog that has approached someone “in a vicious or terrorizing manner in an apparent attitude of attack” also might qualify. Typically, an unreasonable interpretation is less likely to survive a challenge.

Exceptions to strict liability

Under certain exceptional circumstances, the owner is not liable even if their dangerous dog injures you.

Perhaps most importantly, you may not have a case if you were knowingly, purposefully committing a crime like trespassing to burglarize or vandalize the owner’s property. Also, if you were attacking, abusing or tormenting the dog, the dog gets a pass, as do police dogs attacking in the line of duty.

You’ve got 3 years to file a claim for a dog bite, after which the statute of limitations runs out even if the owner would have been liable.

Besides lawsuits, there are criminal penalties

Twenty days in jail and a fine of up to $200 are the maximum penalties for owners either leaving a dangerous dog unsecured or unattended on their owner’s property or for letting it loose outside the property.