When Pets Attack

Posted November 17, 2009 in Insurance Law by

If you’ve turned on the TV in the last week, you’ve probably seen Charla Nash–the woman who was savagely attacked by a chimpanzee–being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and The Today Show’s Meredith Vieira. Last February, Nash’s friend and employer Sandra Herold called to ask for Nash’s help in containing Herold’s pet chimpanzee Travis. When Nash arrived at Herold’s home, Travis attacked her. Nash lost both hands, both eyes, her nose and her lips in the mauling, and remains hospitalized. She hopes she’ll eventually be a candidate for a face and hand transplants.

Nash has reportedly sued Herold for $50 million and the state of Connecticut for $150 million. She alleges the state knew Travis was dangerous, but failed to remove him from Herold’s home. Herold’s attorney, however, has suggested that because Nash was Herold’s employee, her claim should be treated as a worker’s compensation issue. (Nash worked at Herold’s towing company.) This would significantly limit any award Nash could receive, and would shield Herold from personal liability.

Every pet owner wants to believe that their pet–be it a dog, cat or chimp–is friendly and would never hurt anyone. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 4.7 million Americans are bit by dogs alone each year, and more than 900,000 of those bites require medical treatment. Every pet owner should understand the potential legal consequences if their pet injures a non-family member.

Generally, if your dog bites someone, you’ll be liable if you were unreasonably careless or if you knew your dog had a tendency to bite and did nothing to protect others from being bitten.

In addition, you’re responsible if strict liability law is followed in your state. Strict liability, also called absolute liability, means that you are liable for any losses suffered by the injured person, even if you weren’t at fault and careless in any way. That means if your dog bites, you will pay, no excuses.

Every Dog Gets One Bite

In a number of states, the one bite rule applies. Under this rule, you aren’t liable the first time your dog bites. However, once your dog does bite someone, or attempts to bite someone, you’re automatically on notice that your dog bites, and you’ll be liable if your dog bites again. The rule is designed to deter dog owners from keeping a pet that they know has the propensity to bite.

Dangerous Breeds

Usually a homeowner’s insurance policy will cover you for dog bite claims. However, many insurance companies are putting provisions in their policies that exclude certain breeds of dogs which are considered inherently dangerous, such as Pit Bulls, Rottweilers and Doberman Pinschers.

A number of state and local governments have passed laws to restrict or ban certain breeds, regardless of a particular dog’s behavior. Some laws require owners of dangerous breeds to obtain a certain level of public liability insurance in case their dog attacks someone.

Wild and Exotic Animals

Owning an exotic or wild animal as a pet increases your liability exposure, and you could be breaking the law, depending on where you live.

In most states, if your wild or exotic animal injures someone, the doctrine of strict liability applies. Check your state and local laws to find out whether it’s legal to keep the type of animal you want, and if there are any restrictions or registration requirements. Remember, the laws differ among states and localities. You can’t assume that your wild or exotic pet is welcome everywhere.Damages

If your pet does injure someone, you’ll be required to compensate the victim for any damages suffered as a result of the attack. You’ll be responsible for the victim’s medical bills and lost wages. If your animal tore the victim’s clothing, you will have to pay for that as well.

You’ll also have to compensate the person for the pain and suffering they endured because of the attack. This includes both physical and mental injuries. If you were grossly negligent, or if you intentionally caused the attack, you may have to pay punitive damages.

Worker’s Compensation Claims

In Nash’s case, it sounds as if Herold may claim that Nash was helping to wrangle the chimp as part of Nash’s job responsibilities. (Just to be clear: Nash worked at Herold’s towing company.) If Herold successfully makes that argument, Nash’s compensation would be significantly limited.

State laws vary as to the exact compensation available, but injured workers may be entitled to:

  • Temporary total disability while they can’t work at all (this is a percentage of the employee’s previous actual earnings, depending on the state’s laws)
  • Payment of their medical bills
  • Permanent partial disability payments

People who aren’t able to work at all after their injuries may be entitled to total disability.

State laws vary widely as to how permanent disability is determined. As crude as it sounds, in some states there are schedules that list the amount of compensation to be paid for a particular injury. For example, a certain dollar amount will be paid for the amputation of a limb at a certain joint.

In some cases, a vocational rehabilitation expert may get involved and give an opinion as to an employee’s future potential to earn compared to their earning potential prior to being injured.

The employer’s workers’ comp insurance may be responsible for vocational rehabilitation training.

Workers’ comp is an exclusive remedy, which means that injured workers can’t sue their employers, but are only entitled to benefits under their state’s workers’ comp laws.

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