Dog bites are frequent incidents across the United States, though it can be difficult for dog bite victims to know their rights. This is partly because dog bite laws regarding liability and damages vary from state to state. The best way to know your rights to possible compensation through a dog bite lawsuit is to consult with a dog bite lawyer in your area as soon as possible.
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Who Are Typical Victims of Dog Bites?
Children are much more likely to suffer serious injuries in dog bite cases than adults. The group with the highest rate of dog-bite injuries is boys ages five to nine. More than half of all dog bites happen to children 12 and under.
According to the American Humane Society, an unsupervised newborn baby is 370 times more likely than an adult to pass away from a fatal dog bite. Children, in general, have a three times higher rate of medical attention from dog bites than adults. Injuries can include lacerations, muscle tears, and scarring.
The Severity of Dog Bites
Approximately 20 percent of dog bite victims, or nearly a million people per year, require medical attention after a dog bites them. In addition, dog bites lead to more than 300,000 emergency room trips annually, and 9,500 of those need hospital stays. The average costs of that hospital stay are about $20,000. Those stays account for nearly $60 million annually.
The face, neck, and head are the leading injury sites in about two-thirds of dog bites. Plastic surgeons will perform around 30,000 reconstructive surgeries on dog bite victims each year. Some people – commonly children – can have permanent face and neck scarring from dog bite injuries.
Common Dog Bite Injuries
Some people walk away with few injuries from a dog attack, while others need emergency life-saving care due to severe injuries.
Some common injuries are:
- Puncture wounds – Puncture wounds reflect the shape of dogs’ teeth; they are deep, hard to clean, and prone to infection.
- Broken bones – Some large dogs have tremendous bite force in their jaws; especially for younger children, the force of the bite can break bones.
- Scars – Children, especially, can receive facial bites that leave severe scarring
- Face injuries – Facial injuries can destroy looks, function, and spirit as the scars create depression and emotional distress.
- Nerve damage – Deep and tearing bites can destroy nerve tissue in the hands or face, reducing function and sensation, and doctors can do little to repair this.
- Rabies – Any time someone suffers an animal bite and cannot confirm the animal had the rabies vaccine, they may contract rabies. The rabies vaccine process for dog bite victims must begin right away, and it can be painful, but it is necessary since rabies is virtually 100 percent fatal.
Even a seemingly minor cut or puncture from a dog bite can lead to extensive medical bills and complications, such as severe infections. Always be safe and seek a medical evaluation if you suffer a dog bite.
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Breeds Considered Dangerous
Which dogs are “dangerous” is, to some extent, subject to the whims of fashion. However, real statistics show that some dogs are more dangerous than others. Twenty years ago, Doberman Pinschers were the height of dangerous dogs in the public mind; today, they are pit bulls.
The most dangerous dogs generally come from the Molosser group of breeds – so-called because they are similar to the Molossus used by the Romans as a war dog.
Among modern breeds that fall into this class are:
- American Bulldog
- American Mastiff
- American Pit Bull Terrier
- American Staffordshire Terrier
- Bull Terrier (England)
- Doberman Pinscher
- English Bulldog
- English Mastiff
- Golden Retriever
- Great Dane
- Staffordshire Bull Terrier
The Molosser group (not officially recognized as a group by the American Kennel Club) accounts for eight out of ten dog attacks that result in bodily harm, three-quarters of attacks on children, and nine of ten attacks on adults. Pitbull attacks (including their close relative breeds) attack more than any other breed.
What Damages Can I Collect for a Dog Bite?
In addition to medical costs, a victim can recover any other out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages, and punitive damages when appropriate under the law. The typical settlement provides for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering. As in all personal injury cases, punitive damages are only available where the owner’s conduct shocks the court’s conscience.
The dog owner is usually strictly liable for the victim’s medical expenses, and the victim must prove the liable party owned or harbored the dog.
The amount of the settlement for medical bills will vary depending on:
- The seriousness of the injury
- The extent of necessary treatment
- Whether the victim will need treatment in the future
If your dog bite injuries cause you to miss work, you can seek compensation for all the income you lost or will continue to lose in the future.
Often, in dog bite cases, a major loss is physical and mental pain and suffering. Pain and suffering can especially apply when a child suffers a traumatic dog attack, leading to psychological injuries on top of physical wounds. Never discount the pain and suffering compensation available following a dog bite.
Can I Sue the Owner if a Dog Bites Me?
Yes, in most cases, you can sue the dog owner after you or your child suffers injuries in a dog bite event. Often, the process begins with an insurance claim against the dog owner’s homeowners coverage or another applicable policy. Your dog bite lawyer will work to negotiate a fair settlement directly with the insurance company, and many cases resolve in an insurance settlement without the need to go to court.
However, if an insurance company refuses to offer enough to cover your losses – or otherwise disputes your claim – your lawyer can begin preparing a dog bite lawsuit to file in civil court. The legal basis of your lawsuit will vary depending on which state law applies to your situation.
Some states have straightforward dog bite laws that hold owners strictly liable for the actions of their dogs and the resulting injuries. Other states follow a one-bite rule, which gives the dog (and most importantly, the owner) one free bite before the dog is “dangerous” and liability attaches for future injuries. Other states, like New York, have a complex combination of strict liability and dangerous dog principles.
For example, in New York, the cause of action for medical damages is strict liability. This requires that your lawyer prove the defendant is the dog’s owner. To seek other damages, you must prove that the owner knew the dog had vicious propensities and failed to warn or protect potential victims. You must prove negligence to collect non-medical damages like pain and suffering or lost wages.
Finally, if you are the parent of one of the newborns killed each year by a dog attack or a survivor of another victim of a fatal dog attack, you may bring a wrongful death action. Similarly, if the dog kills your dog, you can sue for the death of your dog.
When Is the Owner Liable for a Dog Bite?
The owner is always strictly liable for the victim’s medical costs for a bite from the owner’s dog. The plaintiff must prove that the owner is the person who keeps or harbors the dog and that the dog is dangerous.
New York – and some other states – follow the law of negligence for all other expenses that may arise from a dog bite. This standard means that the owner is only liable if the owner fails to use reasonable care to warn others or protect them from potential harm by the dog.
Certain Terms Defined
To understand the above requirements, you might want to understand certain terms mentioned in New York law. Again, this is only one example of how complicated state dog bite laws can be.
An owner is a person who harbors or keeps a dog.
A “dangerous” dog is one that “without justification” either:
- Attacks and injures or kills a person, companion animal, farm animal, domestic animal or
- Behaves in a manner that a reasonable person will believe poses a serious and unjustified threat of imminent serious injury or death to one of the same
The victim’s conduct can exempt a dog from being dangerous on the day of the attack.
The owner of a dangerous dog also must pay a fine if the owner’s negligence results in a bite to a person, service dog, guide dog, or hearing dog.
The fine depends on:
- Whether the victim was a person or animal
- The seriousness of the injury
- Whether the dog had been previously adjudicated “dangerous.”
Damages other than medical expenses fall under the “one bite” kind of damage. New York courts recognize a cause of action imposing strict liability on an owner for injuries inflicted by their dog.
The victim must establish that the dog is vicious and that the owner knew or should have known about the vicious tendencies. The court held that the owner of a domestic animal who knows or should have known of the animal’s vicious propensities will be liable for the harm the animal causes as a result of those propensities.
For these purposes, vicious propensities include the likelihood of committing any act that might endanger the safety of the persons and property of others.
Evidence of these tendencies can include:
- A prior bite
- Having been known to growl, snap, or bare its teeth
- The nature and result of the attack
- Evidence relating to the severity of prior injuries
Common law negligence will not be sufficient to recover against the owner unless the plaintiff can show that the owner knew or should have known that the attacking dog was vicious or dangerous. In effect, the victim has to prove the owner lied. However, New York is trending back toward a negligence standard, so your case may go more easily than it might have earlier.
Courts follow a negligence per se statute where violation of a statute establishes negligence without further proof. However, the courts have also held there is no negligence cause of action where the dog owner has violated a leash law.
Defenses to Liability for a Dog Bite
Certain defenses can defeat a victim’s claims against the owner’s liability. These defenses include:
The owner might not be liable if the dog reacted to torture, torment, assault, or provocation by the bite victim. Thus, the court will not award damages if the evidence indicates that the victim was teasing or annoying the animal before the bite.
Working Dog Defense
If the dog is a law enforcement or military dog carrying out its duties, it is not designated dangerous. Law enforcement and military dogs receive training to injure their targets. You cannot hold the owner or handler liable if the dog injured you in the ordinary course of its duties.
The dog bit or injured the victim to protect its owner, puppies, or itself. The dog may also have protected its home against a trespasser or criminal committing a crime on the property. The law recognizes that dogs are protective and owners often purchase dogs to protect their property. It will not then punish the dog for behaving in this protective fashion.
The dog was in pain or suffering when it bit or injured the victim. Most injured animals will react aggressively to someone approaching or threatening them. There is no vicious propensity when the dog is in this condition.
Seek Help from Experienced Dog Bite Attorneys
As you have seen, dog bite law in the United States is complex and subtle. If you or a loved one has severe injuries from a dog bite, an attorney can help you work through the complex legal requirements to file your dog bite claim.
An attorney will know the bases for receiving compensation and how to deal with the various defenses that dog owners might raise. Don’t try to handle a dog bite case on your own. Contact a skilled and knowledgeable dog bite attorney today.