Ask any dog owner, and they’ll tell you how much they consider their pet to be a part of their family. Companionship and loyalty are traits that we admire in our dogs, and they do so much to improve our lives! Not only do most dog breeds serve as some form of security for our homes, their presence helps to reduce the day-to-day stress that we may face in our lives.
But dogs still have a long lineage of being descended from wolves, and even the most domesticated dogs are still capable of causing harm. So, on the off-chance that your dog does bite someone, or in the unfortunate situation where you’ve been bitten by a dog, it pays to know what dog bite laws are there to protect you and/or your dog. In either case, you’re going to have a dog bite lawsuit on your hands.
“One Bite” Versus Strict Liability
The courts in various states differ on how a dog bite lawsuit should be treated. This is why it’s important to know what the law is in your area so that you know how to adequately protect yourself and your dog.
“One Bite” laws state that a dog owner was only held liable if he had reason to know that his dog would bite. That meant that the owner got a “free pass” on the first pass, because that would then put the owner on notice that his dog was capable of such. However, this has been modified somewhat. There does not need to be the first bite; if the owner is aware that the particular breed is dangerous or that the dog is prone to biting, then he can be held liable for that first bite.
If he is aware of this knowledge, he should take the appropriate actions to prevent a bite from occurring. Proof of this knowledge is in the hands of the prosecution to show that it was “more likely than not” the dog owner knew or should have known his dog had a propensity for biting. This can be presented through various forms of evidence, such as the dog’s breed, how the owner trained the dog, how the dog was typically restrained, and other people’s experiences with the dog, for example.
In states where there are strict liability dog bite laws, the dog owner is held accountable, whether or not he could have done anything to prevent the event. In these instances, the victim has to show that:
- the victim was in the area where the bite occurred legally, and
- the victim did nothing to provoke the dog
This means that the owner can be held responsible regardless if he knew that his dog would bite or not. However, even in this area, the laws between states differ. Some require that the bite has to take place on public property, while others allow for the defense that the dog owner provided some kind of warning beforehand. However, in all these variations, the aim of strict liability law makes the outcome easier to predict and make such cases easier to handle and quicker to deal with in the court system.
Defenses for a Dog Bite Lawsuit
Just because your dog bites someone doesn’t mean that you’re automatically in the wrong. There is the defense of provocation, where the owner of the dog must prove that the victim intentionally or unintentionally provoked the dog into acting in such a manner. For example, if a person accidentally steps on a dog’s tail, that is a form of unintentional provocation. Other examples include petting a seemingly friendly dog while it’s eating, trying to break up a dog fight, or entering a dog’s territory.
However, keep in mind that this defense is not accepted in all states, so it’s important to examine your state law to see which laws apply to you. The owner of the dog has the burden of proof for this defense.
There is also a counter-argument that can be raised by the victim to undermine this defense. The victim has the burden of proof of showing that
- the victim was bitten by the dog
- the person being sued is the current owner of the dog, and
- the victim was in a public place or lawfully on private property when the bite occurred
Another defense that can be raised is whether the injured person understood the risk of injury. A dog owner can avoid liability by showing that the victim knew the risk of injury associated with the dog and voluntarily took that risk.
For example, a warning sign or a verbal warning that your dog is dangerous is considered sufficient, and if the victim voluntarily chooses to enter your property anyway, they cannot then hold you responsible. Even without a warning of any kind, there are certain professions, such as dog groomers, pet sitters and veterinarians, where they are generally presumed to voluntarily risk being bitten by a dog. This rule only applies, however, if the person in that profession has accepted custody and control over the dog.
A third defense is whether the victim was trespassing at the time of the injury, though this does vary from state to state. A trespasser is someone who hasn’t been invited onto the property. Many people have complied consent, such as those delivering the mail and utility service people.
Children are also a special case, but otherwise, the majority of people would be considered trespassers without given consent, explicit or implied. On the similar train of thought, if the person was on the property and breaking the law at the time of the injury, then the dog’s owner is not at fault for any injuries.
Carelessness is not an absolute defense, but it can diminish the amount of damages you may be required to pay to the victim. If the victim’s carelessness contributed to his injury, then he is entitled to less money than what he is asking for. The amount is reduced by how much percentage was his own fault. In a few states, this defense is even more harsh: a victim who contributes to his injuries in any amount may get no damages at all.
What to Do as A Dog Owner
If you are the owner of a dog, and your dog has bitten someone, there are appropriate steps that you should take in order to ensure that things don’t escalate. First, you should stay calm and do not argue with the victim.
Being nice helps in the event that he or she is deciding to take you to court. Additionally, your dog is already in a stressful situation, and adding more on top of it can cause his mood to worsen. Being courteous may lead to the victim going easy on you and your dog.
Secondly, you should see if the victim requires any medical attention. You should take him to the hospital or his doctor if the wounds are more than you can handle.
Thirdly, you may want to offer to pay for their medical bills. The offering of money upfront may lead them to decide not to take you to court. Also, any statements made in regards to paying for medical attention is not admissible in court as evidence of liability, i.e. it is not proof that you are guilty. It would also be a good idea at this point to report the incident to your insurance company, but keep in mind that you will not be reimbursed for this voluntary payment.
Fourth, you should take the appropriate steps to protect other people from your dog. Take him home, keep him in your car, or put a muzzle on him. Taking the right steps immediately will prevent the scenario from compounding.
Lastly, you should provide your contact information to the victim and take his as well. This is required by law in some jurisdictions. It would also be a good idea to get the name and phone numbers of the witnesses to the scene before you’re charged in a dog bite lawsuit.
In any event, you should always exercise any necessary precautions to prevent your dog from biting someone, whether they have already bitten someone in the past or not. You should always follow leash laws, anti-trespassing laws, and laws in regard to running at large. Keeping your dog in check is the best way to prevent ending up in a dog bite lawsuit. If you’re aware that your dog can be aggressive, take necessary means, such as getting a muzzle and keeping him away from other people.
After the Attack
If possible, try to stay in contact with the victim so that you can show genuine interest in their recovery. Showing good faith and concern may lead to the victim forgetting the whole incident. In the event that they do decide to take you to court, however, you will have to face charges for the actions for your dog. There are three possibilities where your case may end up:
- Civil court: this is where the majority of dog bite cases go. In a majority of states, the strict liability rules apply.
- Criminal court: it isn’t likely that criminal charges will be raised against you, unless the current case was serious or your dog bit someone on a previous occasion.
- “Dog court”: animal control authorities may seek charges against you and/or your dog. In some cases, they may require the dog to be quarantined, which you can offer to do in your own home. This may be a more favorable option in light of the circumstances of the case. You may want to preserve and provide your dog’s medical records in this event to prove that he has received his rabies shots.
If you are expecting that you’ll face criminal charges or if you are definitely not insured, you should speak to an attorney if the victim asks for money – you are providing a lot of money to the victim (for medical bills, etc.), the bite was significant, you hear from the police, or you suspect that your dog may have rabies.
If you are insured and you’re being sued, then you should turn the matter over to your renters’ or home owners’ insurance. If the incident occurred while you were at work, then it should be turned over to your employer as they are required to defend their employees from suit. If the attack took place in connection with a business you own, such as business activities or on the business property, then you should turn the case over to your commercial general insurance carrier.
If you are not insured at all, then there are appropriate ways to respond, depending on the court that is presiding over your case. For small claims court, you should be prepared to show up on your court date and defend yourself with any evidence that you can obtain. In any other court, you should retain an attorney to help you defend the case or serve as a consultant if you cannot hire one. He will be able to provide you with details on the information you should gather in order to help your case, but you still have to do all of the footwork to get this done yourself.
What to do as the Victim
If you are the victim of a dog bite, you are most likely to win your case if you can prove any of the following criteria:
- the dog in question had already bitten someone in the past, and the owner was aware of it
- the dog in question was outside the boundaries of the owner’s residence and was not on a leash
- someone took actions that were negligent or misleading, and the victim was bitten as a result
- the incident took place in a state that has strict liability laws
In addition to the owner, other individuals and companies can be liable as well, especially if they knew that the dog was vicious and allowed it to come in contact with the victim. One good example of this is a landlord who failed to keep a known dangerous dog off of his property; because of his inaction, the tenants who come onto the property are at risk of being bitten, and the landlord can be held liable, even though the dog is not his.
The victim of a dog bite is entitled to receive monetary compensation for the full extent of his damages. These damages include medical expenses for treatment of the injury, pain and suffering, scarring, any form of disability related to the injury, counseling, damaged clothing, and loss of income, just to name a few. There are some states that only regard medical costs in the case for damages, while others place set a cap on the amount of damages that you can receive.
There is also the matter of punitive damages, which serves the purpose of punishing the defendant to make it less likely that other people (as well as the defendant) won’t misbehave in the same manner in the future.
In states where there is strict liability, punitive damages are rarely awarded, while in other states, a multiple of the damages can be awarded based on how many times the dog has previously bit a person. One exception to this is if the dog owner knows that his dog had a propensity for being dangerous. This knowledge makes him more culpable, and if he didn’t take corrective measures to ensure that his dog wouldn’t bite someone, then the court will likely award punitive damages in order to punish him for his lack of proper care.
A dog bite lawsuit is a matter that should be taken seriously by all parties involved. In most cases, it’s likely to be the result of an accident, but the victim may still decide to bring the case to court in order to mitigate the damages done to his person as well as paying medical expenses.
The life of the dog can also be in jeopardy: a dog that has bitten multiple people faces a real possibility of being put down by animal control. Being aware of the various kinds of statutes that exist from state to state will adequately prepare you for the measures that can be taken to protect you, as well as what statutes are on your side in the event that you are bitten by a dog.