Most people love dogs of some shape and size. Unless one of our ankles runs into their teeth.
Whether you are simply a pedestrian, a dog owner or a dog enthusiast, dog bites are serious business for a number of reasons. With so many varieties of dogs and so many breeds with violent dispositions and others that are trained to be dangerous protector dogs for their owners, a dog bite or attack can be a unique and unusual legal matter in terms of liability and responsibility.
So much so that more than half of the states have dog-bite or dog-attack laws on the books for these unique injuries and incidents. It is estimated that 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every single year, and insurance companies hand out more than $450 million in liability payments every year. Of those 4.5 million bites, about 20 percent of them (about 900,000) are serious enough that the victim would require medical help. That is more than 100 serious dog bites every hour!
The Nature of Dog-bite Laws
There are dog-bite laws, there are dog-bite laws, and then there are no dog-bite laws.
The dog owner’s liability can vary based on the state in which you live, so it will be important to know the law in your state. And as was mentioned, some states don’t have specific liability laws pertaining to dog-bite incidents, so a more general liability law may be in place. You owe it to yourself as a dog owner to know the law in your state.
Some states have what are called the One Bite Rule, which says that if a person was the first to be bitten by a specific dog, the owner may not be held liable if he or she had no prior knowledge or belief that the dog would attack. (Certain conditions must be met for this to be true, which will be covered later.)
Other states have Strict Liability rules in place, which essentially says that if a dog attacks unprovoked, it does not matter whether the victim was the first, second, 10th or 20th, the dog owner is likely liable and responsible for the damage caused by the dog.
There is also a hybrid rule, in which some courts will consider liability on a case-by-case basis, giving deference to the dog owner for a first bite unless the dog’s violent tendencies could be proven and the owner having knowledge of it.
Steps to Document an Attack
If you are ever bitten by a dog, regardless of the type of dog-bite law in your state (or if your state even has one), there are steps you should take to document as much information as you can about an incident so your legal rights are protected, especially if you should be seriously injured.
- If needed, get medical help. At the very least you can use a treatment report as evidence.
- Call in the attack to local law enforcement. Getting a police report helps with the evidentiary process. Note as accurately as you can the date, time and location of the attack.
- Get statements from as many witnesses and neighbors as you can. If anyone saw what happened, get their signed statements. Neighbors may not have seen the attack, but they could give statements as to their history with the dog to note if there were some violent tendencies.
- Get the name and address of the dog owner, information about the owner’s insurance policy, and note the breed of the dog. Some dog breeds are already deemed “dangerous,” so liability can be easier to establish.
- Get photos taken, by you or a friend, of your clothing and/or injuries in the incident, photos of the dog and the area around the site of the attack.
- If possible, get some video of the dog when it is out and about. Note its behavior when others are around it and not provoking. This can be used to demonstrate behavior.
- Keep the clothes that you wore during the attack. Do not wash out any blood or try to repair any holes until the case is over. Photos are one thing, but to be able to see the clothing up close can be very convincing to a jury.
- Write your own statement, as descriptively as you can, about the situation before, during and after the attack.
The Bottom Line
Dog bites, even minor ones, should be taken seriously. These incidents are not just legal matters, but they are also public-safety matters. While each state has different laws regarding dog bites – and some states having no specific statutes at all – you can still determine liability and responsibility by documenting as much information as you can about the incident and getting factual answers to questions about provocation, past history of violence or violent tendencies of the breed and the exact location of the attack to ensure that you were in your rights to be where you were.
Also keep in mind, many times people are injured by dogs in other ways besides a dog bite. Some dogs that greet people aggressively or like to jump on their hind legs which can knock people over and therefore can also result in serious injuries. If you find yourself in this situation you might also be entitled to compensation in which the owner of the dog is liable.
Sometimes this work can be difficult, and it’s important to make sure you get advice from a legal professional who can guide you through the process to determine if you have a claim and help you investigate the facts and find out the truth about what happened so responsibility falls where it should.
Abraham Jaros, co-partner and founder of Jaroslawicz & Jaros PLLC, a New York City personal injury law firm. He began his career over 40 years ago and remembers the struggle of finding which area of law to practice as if it were yesterday. During his career as a personal injury lawyer he has tried hundreds of cases and won numerous multi-million dollar verdicts on behalf of his clients. When not in the court room he can be found writing to help inspire future lawyers everywhere.