Dogs are wonderful pets. Most dogs are friendly. They enjoy attention from family members and from strangers alike. At the same time, dogs are protective by nature. If they believe a stranger, or even someone they know, is posing a threat, they may respond to the perceived threat by biting.
Dogs are also territorial by nature. They are wary of “trespassers” who encroach on their territory. Unfortunately, dog bite victims cannot read a dog’s mind and may not know what territory the dogs thinks it is charged with protecting.
Some dogs (and perhaps some breeds, although the question is controversial) are more aggressive than others. While Golden Retrievers have been bred to be gentle family dogs, other kinds of dogs have been bred in ways that enhance their instinct to bite. Even if a dog belongs to a breed that is known for its gentleness, canine behavior is difficult to predict. A dog that has been abused may be fearful and aggressive while other dogs of the same breed are trusting and friendly.
The uncertainty of knowing when and whether a dog will bite creates a potential risk in encounters between humans and dogs. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. If you are a dog owner or a dog bite victim, or if you want to protect yourself or your children from dog bites, here are five things you should be talking about.
Protection against dog bites begins with the dog owner. Responsible dog owners can take a number of steps to lessen the risk that their dogs will bite.
According to the CDC, half of all dog bite victims are children. When children are bitten, they are more likely than an adult to need medical attention. The risk of dog bite injuries is highest for children between the ages of 5 and 9.
Kids love dogs and dogs usually love kids. Parents should teach their children some simple rules to keep a fondness for dogs from turning into a tragedy.
At one point, most states followed a traditional “common law” rule that relieved dog owners from responsibility for a dog bite if their dog had never bitten anyone before. Courts followed that rule on the theory that dog owners have no reason to think their dogs will bite someone until the bite occurs. The “one free bite” rule held dog owners responsible for second and subsequent bites but immunized them from damages for the first bite. Of course, if a bite victim did not know or could not prove that the dog had bitten another person, the victim was out of luck.
The legislatures in many states, including California, have eliminated the “one free bite” rule. Section 3342 of California’s Civil Code states: “The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness.”
The law now holds dog owners responsible for the behavior of their dogs, even if the dog has never demonstrated a tendency to bite. That means bite victims are entitled to recover damages for their injuries without proving that the dog bit some other person in the past.
California’s section 3342 and similar state laws are known as “strict liability” laws because the bite victim is not required to prove that the dog owner was negligent. If the dog owner fails to prevent the dog from biting someone, the dog owner is responsible for the payment of damages to bite victims.
California’s strict liability law does not apply to burglars or other people who enter the owner’s property illegally. It does protect people who are invited into a home and people (like meter readers and postal employees) who lawfully enter property to perform a specific duty. It usually applies to people who come to the owner’s front door for any reason unless those people are clearly violating the law by doing so. Posting a simple “no trespassing” sign may not be enough to shield an owner from liability if a dog attacks someone who comes to the door.
An exception to strict liability in California exists when the bite victim was annoying, harassing, or provoking the dog, causing the dog to defend itself. Teasing a dog might not be regarded as provocation if most dogs would welcome the teasing as play and would not feel threatened by it, but causing a dog pain or making threatening gestures will generally entitle the dog to bite in self-defense.
California’s version of the provocation defense to strict liability does not apply if the bite victim is under the age of five. California law deems a child of that age incapable of understanding that his or her acts might provoke a dog into biting.
Regardless of the strict liability law, if an older child provokes a dog and the dog owner takes no action to remove the dog from the child’s presence, the dog owner might be held responsible under ordinary rules of negligence. A dog owner could also be responsible for failing to warn someone that their behavior might cause the dog to bite. People always have a duty to take reasonable care to avoid causing foreseeable harm to another person. If it is foreseeable that a dog will bite someone, the dog owner usually has a duty to prevent the dog from biting, even if the dog is being provoked.
Some cities have ordinances that provide even more protection to victims of dog attacks. Those ordinances might, for example, provide for strict liability if a dog knocks a victim down, even if the dog does not bite the victim. Any time you are injured in an encounter with a dog, you should ask a dog bite lawyer about the laws that apply in the specific place where the injury occurred.
A study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that hospital visits for dog bite injuries result in healthcare expenses that are 50 times greater than the average emergency room visit. Dog bites often result in serious injuries. If an infection develops or if a bite damages a ligament or tendon, recovery may be prolonged. Some bite injuries require reconstructive surgery.
In many cases, juries award significant damages for dog bites, particularly if a bite causes a permanent facial scar. When a dog mauls a victim, juries often award six or seven figure verdicts to compensate the victim for enduring such a painful and frightening experience.
If you own a home, you almost certainly have homeowner’s insurance. Most homeowner’s policies cover dog bites. Given a dog owner’s strict liability for dog bites, dog owners should make sure that their homeowner’s policy covers liability for dog bites and that policy limits are sufficient to pay a large award of damages. Homeowners in strict liability states should be sure they are covered whether or not they were negligent. If your policy does not cover an award of strict liability damages, you should look for a better policy.
Renters who own dogs can protect themselves by purchasing renter’s insurance. Again, you need to make sure the coverage is adequate and that the policy covers damages awarded under a strict liability statute.
If you or your child are the victim of a serious dog bite injury, you should contact a personal injury lawyer immediately. Do not try to negotiate a settlement with the dog owner or with an insurance adjuster. You need to make sure a settlement is adequate to cover past and future medical bills as well as other losses (such as the cost of therapy to help a traumatized child overcome a fear of dogs). Pain, suffering, and emotional distress also deserve compensation. An insurance adjuster has no incentive to explain all of the categories of damages to which you are entitled. An experienced personal injury lawyer can help you determine the amount of dog bite compensation that is appropriate in your case.