Under Ontario’s Dog Owners’ Liability Act, the owner of a dog is liable for damages resulting from a bite or attack by the dog on another person or domestic animal. This liability does not require any knowledge of the dog’s propensity to attack or bite, nor does it require any fault or negligence of the owner. Essentially, if a dog attacks or bites and causes damage, the owner of the dog will be required to pay for any damages caused by the dog, regardless of any extenuating circumstances that led to the attack or bite. The damages can be reduced by any fault or negligence of the person bitten or attacked that caused or contributed to the damages.
This may sound straightforward, but depends entirely on the definition of the dog’s “owner”.
The word “owner” is defined in the Dog Owners’ Liability Act to include a person who “possesses or harbours a dog”. In the recent Ontario Court of Appeal case Wilk v. Arbour, 2017 ONCA 21, the Court of Appeal clarified that the word “owner”, and the liability that applies to owners under the Act, can apply to people who do not legally own the dog.
In Wilk v. Arbour, Ms. Wilk took Mr. Arbour’s dog for a walk. During the walk, Ms. Wilk was bitten by Mr. Arbour’s dog after a strange sequence of events. Ms. Wilk sued Mr. Arbour for damages, claiming that because Mr. Arbour was the owner of the dog, he was liable for the damages suffered as a result of the bite. The Court of Appeal dismissed Ms. Wilk’s claim after finding that – at the time of the bite – Ms. Wilk was (technically) the owner of the dog under the Act. The Court concluded that the word “possesses” in the definition of “owner” in the Act includes a person who is in physical possession and control over a dog just before it bites or attacks another person or animal. The Court noted that the critical time to determine possession is the time just before a bite or attack. The Court found that Ms. Wilk was the person exercising actual control of the dog just prior to the bite and she was best placed to prevent the bite that occurred. Based on this decision, the owner of a dog right before a dog bites or attacks will likely be the owner that is liable under the Act. This decision might cause people to think twice the next time they volunteer to care for someone else’s dog!
To protect your assets from potential dog ownership liability, you should review your existing insurance policies to determine whether coverage is extended to any damage caused by a dog. Most home insurance policies do extend coverage to damages caused by dogs. However, out of an abundance of caution, you should speak with your insurance broker to ensure you are covered.
Whether you are a permanent or temporary owner of a dog, make sure your assets are protected by confirming insurance coverage for any damage caused by a dog under your control. This peace of mind will allow you to freely enjoy the company of man’s best friend to the fullest extent of the law.