The 9 issues that determine your legal rights as a dog bite victim

A human dog bite victim usually can recover full compensation from the homeowners insurance policy or renters insurance policy of the dog's owner, harborer or keeper. (See Where the Money Comes From.) Injuries to dogs are governed by other legal rules. (See When a Dog Is Injured or Killed.) Here are the questions that will tell you who is legally obligated to pay when the victim is a human:

  • Did the dog have the tendency to bite people without legal justification prior to this accident? If so, did the owner of the dog know it? If the answers to these questions are yes, the owner is legally liable in every state. (See The One Bite Rule.)
  • Did the person who had control of the dog at the moment of this accident know that the dog had this tendency? If so, that person is liable in every state. (See The One Bite Rule.)
  • Did the person who owned or controlled the property where the incident happened know that the dog had this tendency? If so, that person is liable in most states. (See Landlord Liability for Dog Bites.)
  • Did this bite occur in a state with a dog bite statute? If the answer is yes, the dog owner is liable and even the harborer or keeper of the dog might be liable. A "harborer" is someone who gives some combination of food, water and shelter to the dog. A "keeper" is someone who had temporary custody or control of the dog at the time of the accident. (See Statutory Strict Liability States.)
  • Was there a violation of an animal control law like a leash law or law that says that a dog cannot go on other people's property without their permission? If the answer is yes, then the person who had custody of the dog is liable if the violation caused the accident. (See Negligence Per Se for Violating a Leash Law or Other Animal Control Law.)
  • Did the person who had custody of the dog do something negligent, causing the accident? If the answer is yes, the person is liable. A negligent act or omission is one that was unreasonable under the circumstances. For example, it is negligent to let somebody pet a dog that is upset because it is sick or injured, or because children are running around and screaming. (See Negligence.)

Liability depends on three more things:

  • Having admissible evidence that proves your case.
  • Overcoming defenses such as that the victim was trespassing, provoking the dog, ignoring warnings, or acting negligently.
  • Following procedural rules like starting a lawsuit before the statute of limitations expires.

If your injuries are substantial, talk to a lawyer like Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, the author of Dog Bite Law. Even if it seems as if nobody is liable but your injuries are substantial, contact an attorney like Mr. Phillips right away. He has won difficult and unusual cases against dog owners, landlords, employers, stores, animal control departments, police departments, and school districts. See His Greatest Cases.

The 3 categories of money a victim can receive

A dog bite victim is entitled to receive:

  • Economic damages, meaning medical costs, expenses of transportation for medical reasons (i.e., an ambulance, airlift, mileage to the doctor), future medical costs for the cosmetic treatment of scars or for surgery, loss of income in the past, loss of the ability to earn money in the future, defensive measures such as putting up a fence, loss of the value of a home because of the proximity of dangerous dogs, torn clothing, past counseling expenses, future psychological costs, funds expended on a vacation that could not be taken because of the accident, and other out-of-pocket costs that were necessary because of the incident.
  • Non-economic damages, including pain from the injury and treatment, mental suffering when confronted by dogs or remembering the attack, humiliation caused by scars, loss of quality of life because of disability, anxiety about not being able to get work in the future, loss of earning capacity in the future, the indignity of being handicapped and similar detriments that are intangible by nature.
  • In addition to economic and non-economic damages, a dog bite victim sometimes can recover statutory penalties or punitive damages. For example, a Wisconsin statute makes a dog owner liable for double damages if he had reason to know that the attacking dog previously injured a person, domestic animal or property. Punitive damages are appropriate when the dog owners knew their dog was vicious but decided to keep it anyway and let it interact with people.

The precise amount of money depends on many things, such as the age and gender of the victim, his or her relationship to the defendants, the nature and extent of injury, whether a scar is ugly or painful or both, the degree of disability if any, the laws where the incident happened, the attitudes of potential jurors in the relevant court district, the strength of the evidence, and the reputation of the victim's lawyer. There is no general rule, no formula, no book that tells how much money your case is "worth." The more dog bite cases that attorneys and insurance adjusters handle, the better able they are to tell you what you should receive.

To find out more:

The 2 scenarios that will tell you how long it takes

If the liable party has insurance

As soon as the victim's medical bills arrive, reimbursement is available under the medical payments section of the liable party's insurance policy. The usual limit is $1,000 but some policies provide more.

Full compensation is possible two or three months after the victim heals fully and the doctor writes a final medical report. Waiting for full healing is necessary because a settlement is final -- you never can ask for more money even if the injuries turn out to be worse than you thought or the medical costs higher than expected.

Having a lawyer doesn't make the process take longer. An attorney experienced in dog bite cases knows what evidence is the most convincing and how to get it, and has the people who can produce it the fastest.

There are times when the other side refuses to settle, however, or wants to pay an unfairly low amount of money. When that happens, the victim has no choice but to sue. The good news is that lawsuits against insured defendants usually get settled after a while -- sometimes a few months, sometimes a year or two, depending on the skills of your attorney and how congested the courthouse is.

To find out more:

If the liable party does not have insurance

The amount of time it takes to be compensated depends on the method used to make the uninsured defendant pay.

  • Settlement

Some defendants agree to settle in order to avoid the costs and risks of defending against a lawsuit. The paragraph above, starting with "Full compensation is possible," applies to this type of settlement. The defendant will require the victim to sign a proper Release to ensure there will be no lawsuit in the future.

  • Restitution

A victim can receive reimbursement for medical costs, property damage and lost income through criminal restitution. The defendant has to be convicted of a crime related to the dog attack, however, and the sentence must include restitution to the victim. A criminal case normally takes less than a year but the defendant's monthly payments usually are very low.

  • Lawsuit

A victim can receive full or partial compensation through a lawsuit. Depending on the nature and extent of the injuries, the lawsuit can be filed in small claims court or "regular" court.

An attorney usually is not required in small claims court, but the amount that the victim can recover is limited to the court's jurisdiction -- $1,000 in some states, up to $25,000 in others. Parents often are not allowed to sue on behalf of their children in small claims court, but can do so through a lawyer in "regular" court. A case in this type of court usually takes only several months.

The victim receives only a "judgment" from the court. If the defendant does not pay the judgment, the victim has to contact the sheriff to garnish the defendant's wages, take money from his bank account, and seize his property. This will take extra time.

If the injuries are moderate to serious, or the victim is a child, the lawsuit should be filed in "regular" court. As a practical matter, this requires retaining a lawyer and paying the legal costs and attorneys fees every month. "Contingency fee" arrangements are very rare when defendants have no insurance. A case in "regular" court takes from one year to several years. The paragraph above, beginning with "The victim receives only a 'judgment' from the court," also applies here.

The 7 things to do after getting bit

  • Obtain the names and addresses of witnesses, the dog owner, and the people who had custody of the dog when it bit you.
  • Demand that the dog owner give you copies of his dog's rabies vaccination records and his homeowners insurance or renters insurance (meaning the policy booklet and the declarations page showing his name, address and monetary limits of coverage).
  • Take photographs of the wounds and the area where the bite happened, including any "beware of dog" signs or the lack of signs.
  • See a doctor to document your dog bite incident and obtain treatment. At the hospital, insist on a plastic surgeon for wounds on the face.
  • Go to the agency that does animal control in your jurisdiction and make a report, and then cooperate fully with the investigating officers. The report you made at the hospital usually will not trigger a full investigation by the authorities.
  • Retain an experienced lawyer like Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips, the author of Dog Bite Law, unless the injuries are insignificant (see below).

If the dog owner's insurance company calls you, get the following information:

  • Name of insurance company
  • Address of the adjuster's office
  • Telephone number
  • Claim number
  • Name of the person who is insured
  • The monetary limits of the "liability coverage" and "medical expense coverage."

The 8 things to NOT do after getting bit

  • Do not discuss money, payment of money, settlement, injury value or anything else involving money
  • Do not accept any money
  • Do not set up an appointment
  • Do not write a letter or a memo
  • Do not mention the breed of the dog
  • Do not permit yourself to be tape recorded
  • Do not allow the victim to be photographed
  • Do not discuss who is responsible for what happened.
  • The 9 injuries that always require the help of an experienced lawyer

You need a lawyer if the injuries are significant. Attorneys such as Kenneth Phillips, the USA's top dog bite lawyer, charge nothing unless they win your case. Attorney Phillips handles only dog attack cases and has been doing them since 1991. He represents the families of people who were killed by dogs, and victims with significant and moderate injuries all over the USA, and charges nothing unless and until money comes in. Contact him or another attorney while the facts are fresh! Significant injuries include:

  • Bite to the face.
  • Bite to the genital area.
  • Bite to any part of the body that required stitches.
  • Bite that caused a broken bone.
  • Bite that did not break the skin but enabled the dog to pull the victim to the ground where he sustained a broken bone or a significant soft tissue injury.
  • Bite that did not break the skin but forced the victim to take defensive actions which resulted in a broken bone or a significant soft tissue injury.
  • Bite that became infected and required an overnight stay in the hospital.
  • Injuries that caused unconsciousness or brain trauma.
  • Injuries that required an overnight stay in the hospital or caused death.

The 2 injuries that seem minor but require a free consultation because they might be significant

These two kinds of injuries usually appear to be minor at first, but often turn out to be significant, and therefore should be discussed with an experienced lawyer as soon as possible: 

  • Bite that did not break the skin but caused a permanent bruise.
  • Bite or scratch that caused a visible, significant scar (other than to the face, because any bite to the face produces a significant injury).

The one letter to read if the victim is a child

The 14 reasons why kids and adults need a lawyer for a dog bite case

  • Insurance companies try not to pay anything.

Insurance companies pay only 15,000 to 16,000 of the 4.7 million Americans who get bit every year. So without a lawyer, a victim has less than a 1% chance of getting justice.

  • Victims who don't have lawyers are treated unfairly.

An insurance adjuster will offer a victim 10% to 20% of what he would offer an attorney, so the insurance company will get richer by keeping the other 80% to 90%. If the victim has a lawyer, the victim will receive 60% or more, because the attorney's fee will be 33-13% to 40%.

  • The law is complicated.

Dog bite law is complex because it is based on a combination of state statutes, county ordinances, municipal codes, and prior court cases. The legal doctrines include negligence, negligence per se, comparative negligence, the law of trespass, the law of provocation, the law of damages, the law of evidence, the law of insurance and more. 

  • Experienced lawyers know how much money you deserve.

The amount of money you should receive is based on what was paid to similar dog bite victims during the past 10 years -- but you have no idea how much and there is no book or website that will tell you. 

  • Lawyers don't charge money up front.

There is no downside to having a contingency fee lawyer handle the case for you. The initial consultation is free and there won't be a bill if you don't have a good case. 

  • The dog owners won't be hurt if you hire a lawyer.

Don't worry about the dog owners. Those who have homeowners insurance policies or renters insurance policies will owe nothing from their own pockets because these policies do not require co-payments or have deductibles. The lawyer normally will not confront the dog owners, make them feel guilty, put them in a bad light, harass them, write threatening letters to them, embarrass them, foreclose on their home, drive them into bankruptcy, or have their dogs euthanized. 

  • Getting a lawyer doesn't mean you have to sue in court.

A good attorney knows how to present a case to an insurance company in a way that probably will get it resolved without going to court. 

  • It costs more than $1,000 to get the evidence, and your lawyer will pay it.

A lawyer uses his or her own money to get official, reliable copies of medical evidence, professional photos, a private investigator to find out whether the dog ever acted viciously in the past, and at least one doctor to summarize all the medical evidence. This usually costs $1,000 to $2,000. 

  • Your attorney will get you the right amount of money and help you keep it.

When your health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid pays your medical bills, it will make a reimbursement claim against your case. Your attorney will negotiate with them so they will reduce their demands. If you owe your doctors, your lawyer will negotiate with them too.

  • Getting a lawyer early will help your case.

Retaining an attorney early in the process means the insurance company will make a better estimate of how much money you should receive. This makes the claim easier to settle. If you try to represent yourself, you risk passing along the wrong information and insufficient evidence. 

  • Having a lawyer won't slow things down.

Your case will get resolved after you heal because the dog owners' insurance company will need to know how badly you were hurt, and your doctor will not want to write a final report until your injuries are healed or "permanent and stationary." So how long it takes depends on how fast you heal, not whether you have a lawyer. 

  • The money has to be protected and invested if the victim is a child.

By law, you won't be allowed to touch your child's settlement money. It will be deposited into a special bank account, or special annuity for accident victims, or both. If this is done correctly, all of the interest will be tax free. This requires a lawyer.

  • Your attorney will have a judge review the settlement if the victim is a child.

When a child is injured, a judge must review the settlement. This means going to court even if no lawsuit is filed. You should have a lawyer for this court hearing. Otherwise you won't have anyone to turn to when the judge asks questions. 

  • Your lawyer will make a claim for you too if possible if the victim is a child.

Sometimes a parent is also entitled to compensation because of a son or daughter's accident. Most mothers and fathers find it difficult to assert their own rights when fighting for their kids. An attorney helps parents to get what they deserve, too.

Videos

You can learn the basics about dog bite law by watching Dog Bite Law in 2 Minutes.

In-Depth Articles

Liability for Dog Bites to Human Beings

"Plain English" overview of dog bite law
Legal rights of dog bite victims in the USA
Legal rights of rescuers who incur dog bites
Legal rights of bystanders and family members
The "one bite rule"
What is a "bite"?
Vicious dogs
Protection dogs
Criminal penalties for dog bites
Dog parks and liability for dog bites
Electronic pet containment and liability for dog bites
Landlord liability for dog bites
Homeowner association liability for dog bites
Animal control liability for dog bites
Humane society liability for dog bites
Adoption organization liability for dog bites
Police liability for dog bites
Seller liability for dog bites
Liability for rabies
Medical malpractice and dog bite injuries
Model dog bite laws

Liability for Injuries to Dogs or by Means Other Than Bites

Liability for non-bite injuries
Liability when a dog is injured or killed

Proving Liability

What to do after a dog bite
Investigating the attacking dog
Bite reports
Ownership of a dog
Photography in dog bite cases
Beware of the "statute of limitations"
Does an adult need a lawyer for a dog bite claim?
Should parents get a lawyer for their injured child?
From parent to parent - an open letter about using a lawyer for your child
Do we have to file a lawsuit?
Dog bite victims need an attorney for "dog court"
Forms and templates for attorneys who represent dog bite victims
Tactics and strategies in dog bite lawsuits
Trespass by the victim as a defense
Meet Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips

What the Dog Bite Victim Can Receive

Compensation for the dog bite victim
Bodily and emotional injuries in dog bite cases
Finding the insurance that will cover a dog attack
What to do when there is no insurance
Bankruptcy and dog bites
Senior citizens and dog bites
Structured settlements in dog bite cases
How to know if you have a good case