When Good Dogs Go Bad: Dog Bite Lawsuits on the Rise
Preventing dog bites can prevent lawsuits, according to the Insurance Information Institute, which marked National Dog Bite Prevention Week in May, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups. The CDC estimates that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, with one in five of those bite injuries requiring medical attention.
The U.S. Postal Service — the watchdog of the watchdogs — promoted Bite Prevention Week by releasing a ranking of the top 25 cities for dog attacks to letter carriers. The most dangerous places to deliver mail in 2011? Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston, with 83, 68, and 47 attacks, respectively.
Advocates are getting more and more vocal in their support for harsher penalties for owners whose dogs bite. The legal ramifications of dog bites are very serious — and of course different, depending on whether you are bitten or your dog bites someone else. Do you know what to do when Fido breaks bad?
Dangerous Animals, Dangerous Outcomes
Dog bite cases gained attention in 2001 after a San Francisco woman, Diane Whipple, was mauled and killed in the hallway of her apartment building by two dogs owned by her neighbors. They were convicted of manslaughter and both served time; after seven years of legal wrangling, one of the dogs’ owners — the one present at the attack — was sentenced to 15 years to life for the death of Whipple.
The Whipple case “warns dog owners that they will be held criminally responsible if their dogs show any signs of viciousness toward people and then end up really hurting someone,” says Kenneth Phillips, an attorney in Beverly Hills, CA whose entire practice is dedicated to dog bite litigation. “It also reminds all of us that we need to report vicious dogs to the authorities.”
Insurance Payouts — and Legal Options — Expanding
Injuries from dog bites cost almost $479 million in insurance claims last year, accounting for more than one-third of all homeowners’ claims paid out, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Homeowners and renters insurance policies do typically cover injuries from dog bites, says Phillips. But, he adds, three things have to be true for coverage to work:
- The policy can’t exclude the type of dog involved. “Often there are exclusions for pit bulls and other breeds which are associated with violence toward people,” he says.
- The victim can’t reside in the insured home.
- The victim can’t have been in the home because of a business being conducted there (like a daycare business), unless specific insurance covers the business.
Owners whose dogs bite have other things to worry about besides insurance: namely an expensive lawsuit. The extent of the legal damage depends on the state where the bite happens. “Most American states make dog owners liable for all dog bites when a person is bitten, based simply on owning the dog that did the biting,” Phillips explains. This is known as “strict liability.” A smaller number of states require the victim to prove the dog was vicious or that the owner violated an animal control law, such as a leash law.
But “anyone can be held liable under a negligence theory,” Phillips says. This means even in states without strict liability laws, if a dog bite victim can show that the dog’s owner was unreasonably careless and the victim suffered injuries as a result, the owner could be forced to pay for not only the victim’s medical bills, but also lost wages, pain and suffering and property damage.
There are specific steps a dog bite victim should take in order to increase her chances for legal recovery, says Phillips, whose niche practice has drawn attention from People Magazine, the Today Show, and MSNBC:
- Obtain the names and addresses of witnesses, the dog owner and the people who had custody of the dog when it bit you.
- Take photographs of the wounds. See a doctor to document your injuries and obtain treatment.
- File a report with the animal control agency in your jurisdiction and cooperate fully with the investigating officers.
It’s Not All Going to the Dogs…
The U.S. Postal Service, CDC and other groups such as Prevent the Bite and the American Veterinary Medical Association offer plenty of advice for how to maintain control of your dog, and how to deal with aggressive dogs you might encounter.
Don’t fall for the “Don’t worry! My dog won’t bite!” line, especially when children are involved. More than half of dog bite victims are children, according to the CDC. Educate yourself and your children, and keep your dogs on a leash.