The American Pet Products Association says that as of 2017, there are 90 million dogs in the United States that are owned as pets. Unfortunately, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control notes that there are over 4.5 million dog bites per year, and half of them occur to children between the ages of 5 and 9.
From 2003 to 2017, the number of dog bite insurance claims across the United States went up 9.5 percent, but the value of these claims increased by a whopping 111.7 percent, per the Insurance Information Institute. The top three states for dog bite claims were California, Florida and Pennsylvania.
If the worst happens and you or your child is bitten by a dog, you may decide to take legal action. Before doing so, consult the Dog Bite Laws for your state. Although every state does hold a dog owner responsible for a dog bite, some states will allow the owner to use a defense such as the dog was provoked by the victim into biting him or the victim was negligent and was bitten because of this. However, in most states, you can pursue legal action against a dog owner for damages caused by the dog bite or injury.
If You or Your Child Was Bitten by a Dog
According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog owners can be liable for bites in these ways:
- Negligence laws: the dog owner is liable if the owner was negligent in controlling the dog, resulting in a dog bite. These rules vary within counties and localities in states.
- One-bite rule: the dog owner is responsible only if the owner knew the dog was dangerous and likely to bite, caused the bite intentionally or negligently, or violated an animal control or leash law. Currently, these states have the one-bite rule: AK, AR, ID, KS, MS, NV, NM, ND, SD, TX, VT, VA and WY.
- Dog-bite statute: the dog owner is liable for any bite, injury or property damage the dog causes without being provoked. The majority of states are what is known as statutory strict liability states, so if the dog bite occurs in one of these states, the dog owner is automatically legally responsible: AL, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, IL, IN, IA, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MT, NE, NH, NJ, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, UT, WA, WV, WI.
- Mixed dog bite law states: in these states, the “one-bite rule” has been incorporated into dog-bite statutes and the laws vary. These states include NY, NC, GA, TN, HI, OR and DC.
The dog owner’s homeowners or renter’s insurance policy will usually compensate victims of dog bites. There are a few exceptions to a dog owner’s liability, however, that may apply:
- If the victim of the dog bite trespassed on private property.
- If the victim of the dog bite was committing a crime against the dog’s owner at the time of injury.
- If the dog bite victim was a veterinarian or dog professional treating the dog at the time of injury.
- If the dog bite victim assumed risk to being bitten (consented to being bitten).
- If the dog bite victim physically abused and provoked the dog.
- If the dog was assisting the military or police at the time of the injury.
The best way to determine if you can take legal action against a dog owner in your area is to consult a lawyer who specializes in dog bites. Start by Googling “dog bite lawyer” in your zip code, county or city to find such a lawyer. You can also consult the Martindale Directory or the National Association of Personal Injury Lawyers.
Why Hire a Lawyer
According to Kenneth M. Phillips, an attorney who specializes in dog bite cases, less than one percent of dog bite victims receive compensation for their injuries. Although almost 5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, insurance companies only pay a fraction of these cases – up to 16,000 dog bite victims. If you don’t seek legal help when you or your child is bitten by a dog, you are likely to receive far less money as compensation than you would if you hired a lawyer.
Typically, insurance companies will offer a parent of a dog bite victim up to 20 percent of what he could receive if he hired a lawyer. Lawyers take about 30 percent of whatever money is recouped in a dog bite case, leaving the parent with 70 percent of the money – significantly more than he would receive should he use only the insurance company to seek remuneration.
A lawyer will look at your case and evaluate its merit. He will give you an idea on how much money your child/you deserve for injuries and damages. Lawyers will use medical evidence, photos, investigators and other professionals to review all evidence and decide if there is enough for a case against the dog owner.
Even if your child’s dog bite injuries are paid by health insurance, third party claims against that settlement typically go to the dog owner’s insurance company. Lawyers will negotiate with third parties to obtain that money for the child victim instead.
Many lawyers work on a contingency basis, meaning that the lawyer will not ask the dog bite victim/parents to pay him unless he is able to recover money for the victim. If the lawyer is unable to recover any money from the dog owner for the victim, the victim/his parents pay the lawyer nothing. If you are going to hire a lawyer to pursue legal action against a dog owner, it is therefore a good idea to hire one that works on a contingency basis.
Just because you obtain a lawyer against the owner of a dog who bit you or your child does not mean you are suing the owner. The lawyer will work with the dog owner’s insurance company to resolve the claim without it having to go to court. Phillips notes that 98 percent of dog bite cases involving a child as a victim are settled out of court.
Once a settlement is obtained in a dog bite case, that money will be placed into a structured settlement or blocked bank account for your child. This ensures that your child will get the money owed to him without insurance companies making a profit.
If Your Dog Bit Someone
If you are the owner of a dog who has bit someone else and are worried about legal action being taken against you, check the Dog Bite Laws for your state. You may actually have a defense against being sued by the dog bite victim, especially if you can prove that the dog was provoked or the victim assumed the risk of being bitten by the dog (for example, by trespassing onto your property).
Homeowners and renter’s insurance policies will often cover liability legal expenses related to dog bite injuries, up to the policy’s liability limit. Some policies, however, will not cover dog bites by breeds that are considered dangerous like pit bulls and Rottweilers, or dog bites from dogs who have already bitten before.