Are Dog Owners Responsible for Injuries Their Pets Cause When Children Unintentionally Provoke Them?

Although they may not intend to, children often behave in ways that irritate animals. This behavior can result in serious injury if the animal responds. In the case of Nelson v. Lewis, the Illinois Appellate Court considers whether dog owners are legally responsible for injuries caused by their pets in situations where the animal is unintentionally provoked by a very young child.

The Facts

While she was a visitor at Mr. Lewis’s residence, two-and-a-half-year-old Jo Ann Nelson was playing “crack the whip” in the backyard with a group of children. She was at the end of the “whip” when she was thrown off in close proximity to Mr. Lewis’s dog. The large Dalmatian was chewing a bone at the time, and Jo Ann either fell or stepped on the dog’s tail. The dog responded by scratching Jo Ann’s left eye with its forepaw, resulting in a permanent injury to her tear duct. JoAnn’s vision was not impacted by the incident, but her affected eye consistently overflowed with tears more readily than normal and with less irritation than normal.

The dog had not been agitated or teased prior to the girl’s fall. Additionally, the dog had never displayed aggressive behavior toward humans prior to the accident. Similarly, the dog displayed no aggressive behavior toward humans following the accident.

Jo Ann’s father, Mr. Nelson, filed a lawsuit against Mr. Lewis under the Illinois “dog bite” statute, which states, “If a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself in any place where he may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in damages to such person for the full amount of the injury sustained.” Mr. Nelson claimed that as the dog owner, Mr. Lewis was liable for the child’s injuries and thus owed damages.

Pet Owner Responsibility for Dog Attack Injuries

Under the Illinois “dog bite” statute, dog owners are responsible for injuries caused by their pets in situations when the animal is not provoked, the injured party behaves peaceably, and the injured party has a legal right to be present at the location where the injury occurs. To prove that owners owe damages for injuries caused by their dogs, plaintiffs must show that all of these conditions existed during the incident. However, plaintiffs do not need to demonstrate that a dog has a prior history of aggressive or vicious behavior, which is the case with a common law negligence claim.

The Decision

When the case went to trial, the jury found in favor of the defendant, Mr. Lewis. Mr. Nelson then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, arguing that Mr. Lewis was liable for the injury. The key issue in the appeal was whether the dog had been provoked within the meaning of the law. Mr. Nelson claimed his daughter did not provoke the dog because her fall was unintentional. Furthermore, Mr. Nelson said the statute holds dog owners responsible for all injuries caused to very young children.

Mr. Lewis disagreed, arguing that the statute doesn’t differentiate between intentional and unintentional provocation.

In reviewing the case, the appellate court concluded that the jury had decided correctly. The court rejected Mr. Nelson’s theory that the “dog bite” statute holds pet owners responsible for all injuries caused by animals that are unintentionally provoked. In particular, the court said the statute would specify if intentional provocation was the only type of provocation preventing an injured party from receiving damages. Because the act does not make this distinction, the court concluded that it’s irrelevant whether the injured party intends to provoke the dog. Furthermore, the court rejected the argument that Jo Ann’s age alleviated her of any responsibility for her injury. The appellate court also noted that the dog did not behave viciously when it struck the child in direct response to her stepping or falling on its tail. The court viewed this as a reasonable response to Jo Ann’s act of provocation. Because the dog responded in a normal way when provoked, the court concluded Mr. Lewis was not liable for the child’s injuries.


Under the Illinois “dog bite” statute, pet owners are not responsible for injuries their dogs cause when responding to provocation in a non-vicious way. Additionally, the injured party’s age and intent are irrelevant when determining whether the party’s actions constitute provocation.