If your dog bites a person, the odds are that you will not be sued. In fact, the victim probably won't even make a claim against you.
There are at least 4.7 million dog bites every year in the United States, based on figures that are more than 20 years old and which certainly must have grown since then. (See Dog Bite Statistics.) About 800,000 victims receive medical attention, which is only 17% or less of the total victims. However, the liability segment of the insurance industry pays an average of 15,500 dog bite victims per year, which is only 0.005% of the total number of victims -- one-half of one-hundredth of one percent! (See Insurance Information Institute, Average Number of Dog Bite Claims Falls in 2012, May14, 2013.)
If you have a big dog or one that shows signs of aggression (whether because it likes to eat, likes to sleep, likes to hoard its toys, or likes to bite people -- the reason doesn't matter), you need to protect yourself by keeping the dog away from people, muzzling it when it is around people, and strictly following all animal control laws (like leash laws, anti-trespassing laws which apply to dogs, and anti-running at large laws).
If your dog bites someone or causes injury in other ways, you might find yourself on the receiving end of a dog bite claim. Before it escalates, there are measures you can take.
The best and easiest is to be very, very nice to the dog bite victim (and his family). Show concern without necessarily accepting blame, and take the other steps described above. Be sincere, don't be defensive, and don't blame anyone.
If you receive a letter from an attorney who represents the victim, respond to it. If you ignore it, the next person you will see will be a sheriff with a court subpoena! Be nice to the attorney and his or her staff. Give them your insurance information (homeowners or renters). Answer their questions about insurance -- but not about the dog and not about what happened.
If you receive a subpoena, either turn it over to your insurance company so that they can retain a lawyer to defend you, or, if you do not have insurance, retain the best attorney that you can possibly afford. There is no possible way that you can successfully defend yourself in a civil lawsuit. It is complicated, requires a law degree, and also requires experience with the particular court where suit is filed. Be prepared for a major shock when the attorney tells you what your defense is going to cost. You have no choice other than bankruptcy. If you actually are liable for the victim's damages, you should retain your lawyer and instruct him or her to get the case settled as quickly as possible so as to cut down the costs and fees of litigation.
People who are sued naturally worry whether they bought enough insurance coverage to pay for the claim. This is the subject of Insurance for Dog Owners. All that will be noted here is that the usual $100,000 limit found in homeowner insurance policies usually is enough for settlement. If the injuries are substantial, however, this may not be enough. In that event you will want to use your umbrella policy or excess policy. Umbrella and excess policies generally provide $1 million of coverage for about $100 per year.
The following is from an exchange of e-mail between Attorney Kenneth Phillips (the author of Dog Bite Law) and a dog owner who was being sued. The dog owner's message did not make clear whether she was facing a claim or an actual lawsuit, and her inquiry was focused on the $1 million claim being made against her. Here is how Attorney Phillips responded:
There is the case, and then there is the claim. Those are different things.
The claim itself can be for $800 trillion. The amount of the claim is meaningless.
The case is different from the claim. Your insurance company performs its own evaluation of the case. This evaluation is performed with an eye toward getting the case settled without having to litigate it with formal court proceedings.
The insurance company usually responds to a claim by making an offer of settlement that is a fraction of what the case is worth. That fraction ranges from 10% to 50%.
After that, the lawyer for the claimant attempts to negotiate a reasonable settlement.
All of the figures that get discussed are within the policy limits in 99% of the cases.
If the case is really worth more than the policy, the insurance company offers to pay the policy limits. The claimant usually accepts the policy limits.
If the claimant does not accept the policy limits, the claimant has to prosecute a civil lawsuit. The insurance company will defend the insured even though the insurance company wanted to pay the policy limit.
One of the things that an insured person "buys" from an insurance company is their agreement to defend the insured from the covered lawsuits.
In most places, the insurance company also has to pay for a private attorney to protect your personal interests. This is because it is essentially unfair, in the view of many courts, for the insurance company to pick one lawyer to defend the company and you, because your interests are not exactly the same at this point.
If there is a judgment for an amount in excess of the policy, the case usually is appealed. If the judgment survives the appeal and still is over the policy limit, the insured has to pay the excess or declare bankruptcy.
So, as you can see, the fact that a claim is being made for an amount that exceeds the policy limit of your policy does not mean you should worry. You have paid your insurance company to take care of this for you, and they most likely will do so.
Just make sure that you get rid of that dog, if you have not done so already. A dog that does this much damage can make you wind up in jail if there is another accident. You can't get out of that one by declaring bankruptcy. Worse, the victim could be your spouse, your children, or even you.