Dog Owner Liability

Ask an Attorney: What You Need To Know About Dog Bite Liability

We asked Greg Colburn, a top-rated dog bite lawyer, a few frequently asked questions about dog bite liability. Greg reminds us that although we love our furry friends, it’s always important to remember to take all responsible acts necessary to ensure the safety of anyone that comes into contact with your dog. All dogs are capable of causing serious injury to people, especially children.

What if your dog injures someone – by a bite or by knocking him or her down?

If your dog injures a person by biting, you are responsible for all of the harm suffered by the bite victim.  The exceptions to this rule exist when the person was trespassing or provoking your dog.  Three causes of action are available to the dog bite victim, as discussed further below.

If your dog knocks a person down, you may be responsible but establishing that type of civil claim can be much harder than a dog bite claim because strict liability does not typically attach; rather, the victim needs to establish that you were negligent, as discussed further below.

Does homeowner’s liability insurance and/or umbrella policy cover injuries committed by your dog?

Typically, yes, homeowners insurance and umbrella policies provide coverage if your dog bites a person.  Some policies provide coverage exclusions based upon dog breeds (discussed further below).

I am still surprised at the number of dog owners that are unaware that their homeowner’s insurance provides coverage for dog bite claims.  When we are hired by dog bite victims and make initial contact with dog owners, a good number of dog owners refuse to provide homeowners insurance because they don’t think they have “dog bite insurance”.

An example of liability protection language from a homeowners policy includes, “We will pay damages which an insured person becomes legally obligated to pay because of bodily injury or property damage arising from an occurrence to which this policy applies…”  In other words, if a homeowner’s dog bites a person and, as a result, the homeowner is legally liable for the harm, then the liability protection afforded by homeowners insurance applies and protects the homeowner/dog owner.

The homeowners insurance will pay for a personal injury settlement or judgment up to the limit of coverage, and the homeowners insurance will pay for a legal defense if a lawsuit is commenced.

What Liability Does Umbrella Coverage Provide?

Umbrella coverage typically provides the same type of liability coverage as primary homeowners insurance.  However, many homeowners are unaware that for umbrella coverage to apply, the primary homeowners insurance must have minimum coverage limits.

For example, some insurance companies require homeowners to carry a minimum of $500,000 bodily injury liability protection before the homeowners’ umbrella coverage applies.  In such an instance, if the homeowner only has $300,000 of bodily injury liability protection on their homeowners insurance, they would be uninsured for damages between $300,000 to $500,000 – in other words, the homeowner would have $200,000 of personal exposure.

In addition to homeowners and umbrella insurance, renters insurance policies can also provide coverage for dog bite claims.  Coverage language may state, “If a claim is made or a suit is brought against an insured for damages because of bodily injury or property damage to which this coverage applies [Liability Coverages], caused by an occurrence, we will:  1.  pay up to our limit of liability for damages for which the insured is legally liable; and 2. provide a defense at our expense by counsel of our choice.

Notably, some homeowner and renters insurance policies exclude liability coverage for injuries caused by certain dog breeds, including but not limited to:   pit bulls; chow chows, Doberman pinschers; Rottweilers; mastiffs; German shepherds; wolf-hybrids; Rhodesian ridgebacks; and, Akitas.

Legal protections and compensation rights of the injured person.

The legal protections for dog bite victims include two overarching categories:  (1) protection from future attacks through regulatory actions by local animal control; and, (2) civil claims for injuries and damages.

 Victims of dog bites and attacks need to report dog bites to local animal control to try to prevent the dog from biting the victim again, or other members of the community.  If animal control doesn’t know that a dog bite has occurred, then animal control cannot do anything to educate the dog owners, enforce dog safety regulations, and prevent future dog bites and attacks.

 Far too many times have I been retained by a dog bite victim with serious bodily injuries only to learn through investigation that the attacking dog was a repeat offender; however, none of the dog’s previous victims had notified animal control.

In such circumstances, not only does the failure to notify animal control make it more difficult for animal control to take action against the dog owners and dog (e.g. issue a dangerous dog declaration that imposes restrictions on the dog owners, like providing a proper enclosure, ensuring muzzling, and carrying bodily injury insurance), but it can also create hurdles for the dog bite victim when seeking compensation for injuries and damages.

Dog bite victims have the right to monetary compensation for all available damages supported by the claim.  These damages include:

  • Past and future medical expenses
  • Past and future lost earnings
  • Past and future physical pain and suffering
  • Past and future emotional pain and suffering
  • Past and future disability
  • Scarring and/or disfigurement
  • Past and future loss of enjoyment of life
  • Past and future inconvenience

Dog bite cases are different from typical personal injuries, like car accident cases, for one major reason:  Dog bites are physical assaults.

When a car hits another car, two inanimate objects collide with the collision causing injuries to the people inside the cars.  The people, occupants of the cars, never hit each other personally.  One person is not attacking another person.

When a dog attacks a human being, a living breathing animal is assaulting that person.  The dog is baring its teeth.  The dog is growling.  The dog is staring right at the person.  Most importantly, the dog’s mouth, its teeth, cause injury by tearing the person’s flesh, and in some instances removing flesh and limbs.

Scarring, disfigurement, disability, and emotional pain and suffering are common injuries suffered by dog bite victims.

Dog bites cause scars that are jagged, raised, indented, uneven, and discolored.  Common areas of the body that are bitten by dogs include face; hands, arms, feet, and legs.

Facial wounds leave lasting scars that often make the dog bite victim feel disfigured.  A bite to the cheek, lip, or orbital area, leaves the victim with a permanent reminder of the attack – every day the victim looks in the mirror the person looking back is the person who existed before the dog bite.

Hands are generally bony structures, particularly susceptible to crushing and tearing injuries.  Dog bites can leave thumbs and fingers unusable.  Or, as I have seen, dogs can simply remove a thumb or a finger with one bite.

The nature of a dog bite attack necessarily leads to an increased probability of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  A diagnosis of PTSD requires symptoms in four areas:  re-experiencing the traumatic event, avoidance of trauma reminders, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and increased arousal.

Many dog bite victims relive the attack over and over without the ability to push the memory from their thoughts.  They suffer nightmares and even daymares.

Dog bite victims avoid public places, or places and gatherings where they believe dogs will be, such as parks, homes of friends and family, and even areas within their own households.

As a result, dog bite victims suffer from hypervigilance.  They tend to be on constant lookout for dogs which they now perceive as threats to their safety.

What is that person legally entitled to? and, What is the compensation based on?

The dog bite victim is entitled to the sum of money that will make her whole.  In other words, an amount of compensation that will place her in as good a position as she would have been but for the dog bite.

As discussed above, the damages available to a dog bite victim include multiple categories.  Each dog bite victims claim is unique.

For comparison, the amount of money necessary to fully compensate a scar on my face from a dog bite is worth less than the same scar on my wife’s face.  First, the reality is that generally speaking the value of a scar is not viewed the same for men and women.  Second, I already have scars on my face from sports and work injuries.  My wife’s face is unscathed.  Adding an imperfection to an already imperfect face is different than marring a clean slate.

Further, how the dog bite affects a victim’s ability to work, engage in relationships, and enjoy life must all be taken into account.  I represented a chef who suffered a dog bite injury to her right thumb.  She was right hand dominant.  Because of her profession and the nature of her injuries, she was unable to work.  She not lost earnings for months, but her career path was interrupted, and her ability to enjoy her life as a chef was negatively impacted.  The ripple effects of a dog bite are numerous and ever reaching.

What should you, as an owner of the dog, do if this happens? 

 If your dog bites another person, the first thing you should do is check to see if that person is okay.  You should act like a human being.  You should offer assistance, call 9-1-1 if necessary.

You should ensure that proof of all vaccinations is made available to the dog bite victim, and in particular, proof of rabies vaccination.

You should notify your insurance carrier, whether you have homeowners insurance or renters insurance.  You have a contractual obligation to notify your insurer of potential claims to allow your insurer to conduct a full and timely investigation.

Further, many homeowners insurance policies include two coverages that can cover the loss:  Bodily Injury Liability; and, Medical Payments.  Medical Payments coverage is a no fault benefit that can pay for the dog bite victim’s medical bills up to the applicable coverage limit, which is typically in the range of $1,000 to $5,000.

 If you believe that your dog did nothing wrong then you should want your insurance company to immediately investigate the claim to ensure that you are provided a proper defense.

If your dog viciously attacked a person and that person was not trespassing on your property or provoking your dog, then as the owner you need to take responsibility.  You need to cooperate with animal control.  You to need to step back and objectively determine whether your dog can safely exist around people.  You need to consider all measures available to ensure that your dog never bites again, including:

  • Animal behavior assessment and training
  • Muzzle wearing
  • Limit exposure to strangers and children
  • Ensure that yourdog is always properly restrained whether by leash or physical enclosure
  • Place warning signs on your property to notify visitors
  • Ensure that delivery drivers (e.g. Amazon, FedEx, UPS, USPS) are not put in harm’s way when trying to deliver a package to your home

What can you expect if the injured person files a suit against you?

If the dog bite victim files a lawsuit against a dog owner for a dog bite, the dog owner can expect to be involved in litigation for at least six to twelve months.

The dog owner will be served with a summons and complaint, likely at the dog owner’s home.  This means that a process server (a person) will visit the dog owner’s home, knock on the door, and hand the lawsuit to the dog owner.  Being served can cause fear and panic in the person being served as many people have no idea what is happening.

If served, the dog owner should immediately notify their homeowners insurer or renters insurer.  The insurance company will assign an attorney to defend the case at no additional cost to the dog owner.

The dog owner will be required to answer written questions called interrogatories, and produce a litany of documents in response to requests for production.  The dog owner will have to provide personal background information as well as information about the dog.  Typically, vet records must be produced, along with any records from behavioral training or behavioral assessments.

The dog owner can expect to have their deposition taken.  Meaning, the attorney for the dog bite victim will have the opportunity to ask the dog owner questions under oath.  If the dog owner lies during deposition, the dog owner will be guilty of perjury.  The dog owner’s deposition typically lasts between two and three hours.

After significant discovery has occurred during litigation, the parties oftentimes attempt to settle the case by way of mediation.  Dog owners have no say in whether a case settles or not.  The decision to settle a dog bite victim’s claim rests solely with the insurer.

If the case doesn’t settle, then the dog owner should expect a trial.  The dog owner will likely be required to attend trial, which can last as short as a few days or as a long as a few weeks.  This means that the dog owner will need to miss work and make plans for childcare as needed.

Dog owners should know that dog bite victims are not limited to recovering only the amount of insurance available.  For example, if a dog bites a 10-year child’s arm causing injuries that require reconstructive surgery, result in permanent life-long physical scars and emotional trauma, a homeowners insurance policy with only $100,000 of bodily injury liability is insufficient.

In the above example, the child’s injuries and damages are worth significantly more than $100,000.  The dog owner needs to be prepared that their personal assets are exposed to collection.  Meaning, the settle the case or satisfy a civil judgment, the dog owner may need pay money above their insurance limits.

We recently settled a case for a child.  The dog owners had two applicable homeowners insurance policies that provided total coverage of $200,000.  To settle the case, the dog owners had to make a personal payment of $25,000 cash.

What about the one-bite law versus “dangerous dog?”

The prevailing rule in the United States is that dog owners are strictly liable for injuries caused by dog bites.  In other words, in most states, dog owners do not get a “free bite”.

The one-bite rule is followed in some form by sixteen states.  In these states, dog owners are civilly liable for dog bite injuries if the dog owner knew or reasonably should have known that their dog had dangerous or vicious tendencies.

In many states, three causes of action exist for a dog bite victim versus the dog’s owner:  (1) statutory strict liability; (2) common law strict liability; and, (3) negligence.

Strict liability means the dog owner is responsible, or liable, without regard to whether the dog owner was negligent.  Strict liability is an acknowledgment that dogs, no matter the breed, are all capable of biting or attacking a human being.

Strict liability acknowledges that dogs are animals that pose an inherent risk of causing harm.  A dog can inflict the same severity of injury and damage as many weapons; however, a dog chooses its target and a dog decides when to attack.

Statutory strict liability is governed by the laws of the state.  Typically, the owner of a dog is liable if their dog bites a person who is not trespassing and not provoking the dog.  In such a case, the dog’s history of aggression or bites is irrelevant.  The owner of a dog with no bite history or history of aggression is strictly liable for harm caused by the first dog bite.

Common law strict liability, which is established through the courts, may also create a strict liability against the dog owners of “dangerous dogs”.  Common law strict liability applies when the owner of a dog knew or reasonably should have known that their dog had aggressive or vicious propensities likely to cause the injuries suffered. As an example, in Washington, the owner of such a dog is strictly liable as stated, “One who keeps a dog, who knows or reasonably should know that the dog has vicious or dangerous propensities likely to cause the injury complained of, has a duty to kill the animal or confine it.  Any injury caused by such an animal subject the owner to prima facie liability without proof of negligence.”  Arnold v. Laird, 24 Wn.App. 244, 246, 600 P.2d 662 (1979).

Negligence claims are what most people think of when they hear about personal injuries or torts.  Negligence is the failure to exercise ordinary care.  Negligence is classically defined as the doing of some act that a reasonably careful person would not do under the same or similar circumstances or the failure to do some act that a reasonably careful person would have done under the same or similar circumstances.

For example, suppose a dog owner knows that his dog is prone to jumping up on people, including strangers.  The dog owner takes his dog to a street fair.  While at the street fair, the dog jumps up onto a child, knocks the child to the ground causing the child to hit its head and suffer serious injury.  The dog owner placed his dog – known to jump on people – in a situation that posed an increased risk of harm to people and then the dog owner failed to control his dog.  The dog owner was likely negligent and liable for the child’s injuries and damages.

About the Author: Greg Colburn

Greg Colburn

Greg Colburn is a top-rated personal injury lawyer that handles a variety of injury cases in Seattle, Bellevue, Issaquah, and surrounding areas of Washington. If you’ve suffered an injury from a dog, contact our Seattle dog bite lawyers for help regaining compensation for your injuries if you were attacked.

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