When a dog bites a person in the USA, the person usually can recover full compensation from the dog owner's homeowners insurance policy or renters insurance policy (or even from the dog owner, if he does not have any insurance). The legal grounds for liability vary from place to place because they depend on state statutes, county and city ordinances, and court decisions. Basically, the grounds include the one bite rule, negligence, and statutory liability. In some cases, people other than a dog owner can be held liable, such as a person having custody of the dog, the employer of a person who is liable for a dog bite injury, or a landlord who failed to rid his property of a known dangerous dog.
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The one bite rule
In every state, a dog owner or harborer will be held liable if he knew, before the biting incident, that his dog had the tendency to bite people without justification. Even though this is the law throughout the USA, it is important to the dog bite victim only in the few states that have not enacted statutory liability (see below). It is the most difficult legal ground for the victim, because he must prove that the dog previously bit a person or acted like it wanted to bite a person, and that the owner knew or should have known of the dog's propensity to bite. This rule also covers injuries other than bites, such as "knock-downs" and tripping. It also governs liability stemming from injuries inflicted by other domestic animals, such as cats. Additionally, it is the basis for holding third parties such as landlords liable for dog bites.
The names "one bite rule" and "first bite free rule" are inaccurate because a "bite" is not necessarily required. A victim is entitled to recover if he can prove simply that the dog previously demonstrated that it wanted to bite people, and that the dog owner knew (or should have known) that the dog previously demonstrated this vicious tendency.
For more information, see Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA.
In almost every state, a dog owner (as well as any other person) will be held liable if his negligence causes a biting incident. "General negligence" is the doing of an act without due care, or failing to do something that due care requires. It also can be defined as doing something unreasonable, or failing to do something that reason requires. A common example of negligence is allowing a dog to run loose in a day care center. Other examples of negligence include allowing a dog to run loose at a sleepover, chaining a dog to a tree near a family gathering, and walking too many dogs at once. A landlord can be held liable for negligence for allowing a vicious dog to live on the landlord's premises or even a tenant's premises.
Another kind of negligence is violating an animal control law. Many cities have leash laws, laws that prohibit dogs from running at large, and laws that prohibit dogs from trespassing. Breaking one of those laws is not only a minor crime but also a form of negligence. It is referred to as "negligence per se," which is defined as the doing of an act that violates a law intended to prevent harm, such as a leash law. The person who violates any such law usually must pay full compensation to someone who is hurt because of the violation, as well as pay the penalty for the crime.
There are many types of animal control laws at the state, county and city level, so one must always study all three codes. Whenever there is no history of prior biting, and nothing negligent about the dog owner's behavior, the entire claim might rest upon the violation of an animal control law or the creation of a public or private nuisance. For that reason, an attorney must be consulted. Additionally, there are subtle differences in how legal doctrines are applied from one jurisdiction to the next. For example, some regard a violation of an animal control law as evidence of negligence as opposed to negligence per se. Again, a lawyer must be consulted.
In two-thirds of the states, a dog owner (and sometimes a harborer or keeper) will be held liable for dog bites pursuant to a statute. In general, statutory liability is the most simple way that a victim can receive compensation. Additionally, it is the least disruptive to the relationship (if any) between the victim and liable party -- an important consideration because 75% of the time they are relatives, friends or neighbors. This form of liability does not make the victim an "accuser," or require proof that someone did something "wrong."
The states having a dog bite statute are referred to as "statutory strict liability states." The usual prerequisites for compensation are that the victim was bitten, and the "defendant" owned the dog. The victim does not have to prove that the dog previously bit anyone or acted like it wanted to bite anyone. One must always read these statutes closely, however, because some have limits or additional requirements. A few even combine principles of negligence and the one bite rule, and therefore are called "mixed" dog bite statutes.
The victim is compensated by the dog owner's insurance company
Statistically only one in six dog bite victims will receive medical attention, so the "usual" dog bite does not result in a claim for compensation other than medical expenses. When the injury is serious and the dog owner is liable, however, either the dog owner or his insurance company has to fully compensate the victim. Homeowners insurance policies and renters insurance policies usually provide full coverage for dog bite injuries. Whether or not the dog owner is liable, the "guest medical coverage" in such policies often will reimburse the victim's medical costs up to the policy limit, which usually is only $1,000 but often is $3,000 and rarely is $5,000 or more.
What can the victim receive money for?
Generally, the victim of a dog bite is entitled to receive compensation for the full range of his damages. The specific items of damages can include pain, mental suffering, permanent scarring, temporary or permanent disability, loss of future earning capacity, loss of quality-of-life, medical expenses to treat the injury, cosmetic services to improve the appearance of the injury, psychological counseling, damaged clothing, and loss of income. The foregoing list covers the most common examples of loss, and is not exhaustive.
In a few states, a victim's compensation is limited to only the medical costs; in a few others, a victim cannot recover more than a certain amount. On the other hand, some states give the victim a multiple of his damages if the dog previously bit a person. The rules governing damages can be very complicated, and therefore it is essential to consult an attorney in any serious case.
What about punitive damages?
Punitive damages consist of money over and above that which is required to compensate the victim, awarded for the purpose of punishing a defendant and making an example of him. In a few states, a multiple of the compensatory damages are awarded to the victim if the dog previously bit a person. Except for those double-damages or triple-damages statutes, punitive damages are rarely awarded in dog bite cases because liability usually is based on merely owning the dog.
In cases where the dog owner knew that his dog was dangerous or vicious, however, he faces the very real possibility of having to pay punitive damages in addition to compensatory damages. Because the purpose is to punish the wrongdoer, the dog owner himself, and not his insurance company, must pay the punitive damages. Additionally, there is legal authority that such damages cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
Suppose the victim was trespassing or provoking the dog, or was injured without being bitten?
If the victim was trespassing or provoking the dog that bit him, he can't use the "statutory cause of action" but can still use the one bite rule.
If the victim was injured but not bitten, he usually has to satisfy the requirements of the one bite rule. However, the dog liability statutes of a number of states cover all canine-inflicted injuries, regardless of their cause; in those states, a victim's claim can be based on the statute even if he was not bitten.
A case that has any of these features has to be handled by an attorney. See Does an Adult Need a Lawyer for a Dog Bite Claim? or Should Parents Get a Lawyer for Their Injured Child?
Are there people who are never allowed to get compensated for a dog bite?
Not everybody receives compensation for dog bite injuries. People who work with dogs (such as trainers, dog walkers, groomers, dog sitters, veterinarians and their assistants) are the biggest exception to the normal rules of liability. Their rights depend on the law in their jurisdiction. Even in places that generally do not allow canine professionals to recover compensation, however, there are ways to do so. For that reason, people in this category must always must consult an attorney after getting injured. See Does an Adult Need a Lawyer for a Dog Bite Claim?
There are things they can do before an accident happens that will increase their chances of receiving fair compensation for medical costs, loss of income and other damages. These are covered in Avoiding Liability When You Train, Shelter or Adopt out a Dog.
Is the dog owner the only person who can be held legally liable for a dog bite?
Other people, companies and even governmental agencies (such as the police department, animal control department or school district) also can be held liable under certain circumstances. Here are examples (for more, see Legal Rights of Dog Bite Victims in the USA):
- The dog liability statute (if there is one) might cover not only owners but also "harborers" and "keepers" of the dog.
- Day care centers and schools sometimes foolishly allow dogs to mingle with the children, causing injuries to the kids.
- Stores sometimes foolishly allow customers to bring in dogs, causing other customers to trip over leashes or to get bitten.
- Animal control departments sometimes neglectfully allow a known dangerous dog to roam the neighborhood, eventually resulting in serious injuries to a person.
- Police sometimes negligently allow their working dogs to maul suspects or to even bite people other than suspects.
- Employers can be held liable for injuries inflicted by dogs belonging to their employees and used in the course of work. The ground for liability is simply based on being the employer, not on negligence.
What should a dog bite victim do to ensure getting compensation?
- Make a report to the animal control authority. Don't assume that the hospital's report will trigger the necessary investigation, because it will not.
- Record the names of the dog owner or handler, and all witnesses.
- Take photographs of the wounds before they are treated and afterwards.
- Get medical attention immediately. This is not only to document the cause and nature of the injuries, but to prevent infections that could lead to horrific consequences.
- The next step depends on the severity of the injuries. If the bite is to the face, or is significant, or requires hospitalization, retain a lawyer who has experience with dog bite cases. Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips reviews possible cases for free (to contact him, click "Contact" at the top of this page). If you are not sure that you need an attorney, see Does an Adult Need a Lawyer for a Dog Bite Claim? or Should Parents Get a Lawyer for Their Injured Child? Less significant injuries can be pursued in the small claims court, which can only award a limited amount of money but has the advantage of being quick and inexpensive.