In general, after your dog injures a person or other dog, be nice to the victim or victim's family because that might do the trick. Pay a reasonable amount for reasonable expenses, and get a written release. Here are other important rules for specific situations.
When the victim is a person
If a monetary claim is made, either negotiate a settlement or turn the matter over to your homeowners or renters insurance company. Don't delay because that would trigger a lawsuit against you and you would be violating one of the terms of your insurance policy. If you have a canine liability insurance policy, turn it over to them.
If a lawsuit is filed against you in a court other than small claims court, turn it over to your homeowners or renters insurance right away. Don't delay because that would trigger a lawsuit against you and you would be violating one of the terms of your insurance policy. If you have a canine liability insurance policy, turn it over to them.
If you are sued in small claims court, try to negotiate a settlement. Instructions for settling are at the end of this page. If you cannot settle, be prepared to present your defense in small claims court. Having no money is not a defense. Learn about small claims court by reading about it in Legal Briefs.
If you don't have insurance and a lawyer contacts you, be candid about not having it. Try to negotiate a settlement.
If you don't have insurance and you are sued, retain an attorney immediately to defend you. A judgment on your record will hurt you financially whether you pay it off or not, because it may prevent you from getting a job, a promotion, or a loan.
Whether you have homeowners or renters insurance now or are getting it, make sure it does not exclude dog bites. If the policy has full coverage and does not specifically rule out dog bites or injuries inflicted by animals, then you will be covered. If you cannot find a policy without an exclusion, buy a policy of canine liability insurance. It covers just about any dog including one with a bite history, and it is surprisingly inexpensive. Find the policy at Insurance for the Dog Owner.
When the victim is a dog
As soon as you learn that a monetary claim is being made, either negotiate a settlement or turn the matter over to your homeowners or renters insurance company. Don't delay because that would trigger a lawsuit against you and you would be violating one of the terms of your insurance policy. If you have a canine liability insurance policy, turn it over to them.
If you are sued in a court other than the small claims court, either negotiate a settlement or turn it over to your insurance right away.
How to settle a claim
A settlement is based on three things: liability for the accident, the extent of the injury, and your ability to pay. Do everything possible to have an attorney evaluate the victim's claim and suggest a settlement strategy. If that is impossible, these guidelines might help.
Liability for an accident can be tricky to figure out. A rule of thumb is that you are liable if your dog bit a person who was not hitting it or hurting it in another way (and if he was, you still are liable if he was 5 years of age or younger). You must review the law of your state: find the link to your state on the home page of dogbitelaw.com. If your dog bit another dog, find the law in the self-help book, When A Dog Is Injured Or Killed.
You must evaluate not only whoever was responsible for your dog, but also what the victim was doing. If he was not a young child, his own degree of fault will reduce what you have to pay or entirely eliminate your obligation. The rule of thumb here is that you have to pay half the other party's legal damages if you were 50% to 100% at fault. For more information, see Negligence.
If the person responsible for your dog was in the wrong, then you as the dog owner will also be considered in the wrong. There are a variety of legal grounds for that, but they all are based on the principle that "the buck stops here" -- meaning it stops at you, as the dog owner.
The extent of the injury is also a key factor in this type of case. Medical bills are considered an indication of the size of the case but only if the bills exceed $5,000 to $10,000. Otherwise a lay person should think in terms of the average dog bite settlement by liability insurers, which in 2014 was $29,000. A bite to the leg with minimal scarring and medical treatment would warrant half of an average settlement, while a bite that is more serious would be a multiple of the average settlement. Indeed, facial bites to children routinely settle for two to five times the average.
A legal "injury" includes all of the detriment suffered by the victim, meaning medical and counseling costs (past and future), loss of income, travel expenses for medical treatment, and things like unused plane tickets, torn clothing, smashed glasses, etc. These are paid in addition to the compensation for the bodily or facial injury as described above.
Finally, the ability to pay is a factor when settling a case. If you do not have much money, let the other party know and be prepared to disclose everything about your bad financial circumstances.
Before paying a settlement, put the amount into a "release" and get the victim's signature on it (or the signatures of the victim's parents). If the victim was a child, the settlement will not be binding on him unless it is approved by the local court. For that, you need to consult with an attorney. A non-binding settlement means that the child will be able to sue you until he turns 19, 20 or more, depending on the statute of limitations in your state.
Dealing with dog court
A "dog court" is any hearing or court proceeding which results from the violation of an animal control law. Dog bites to people and other dogs can end up in dog court along with various other bad interactions between people and animals. A dog owner can face a fine or even lose his dogs, and a dog may be ordered confined or even put down.
Attorneys do not handle cases in dog court unless the stakes are high and the dog owner can pay high legal bills. Because there are so many different animal control laws, general advice is almost impossible to give. Therefore the dog owner must obtain a self-help book like Defending Your Dog - Win Your Case In Dog Court. If the dog owner is accused of a crime that could result in jail or prison time, however, he must retain a criminal defense attorney or ask the court to appoint one.