Seventy-five percent of the time, a dog bite victim and the owner of the attacking dog are friends, neighbors or relatives. The victim in such a case often wants to preserve the relationship while at the same time protect his rights. Retaining an experienced attorney can accomplish both of these goals. A skillfully made dog bite claim will not hurt the dog owner or his dog; his reputation will not suffer and it will not cost him a penny.
The victim and his family nevertheless must be aware that saying the wrong things to the dog owner may prevent an amicable settlement. This is because settlement is up to not the friends, neighbors and relatives, but their homeowners insurance company or renters insurance company. These corporations exist for making a profit; they are not charities or churches that hand out fair amounts of money to the needy. They look for ways to pay less or not pay at all. Saying the wrong thing thus can and will be used against the dog bite victim, and may inadvertently spark a lawsuit. Examples of counter-productive statements by the victim or his family include (but are not limited to) the following:
- "I should not have pet the dog."
- "Your dog is vicious and everybody knows it."
- "Your dog bit 3 other people before it bit my son."
- "I should never have let my son play in your backyard."
- "I told my son to watch out for your dog and not treat him rough."
- "Don't worry, we are not going to sue you."
The first 5 of these statements have the legal effect of accepting responsibility for the incident. They indicate knowledge that the dog was vicious, negligent supervision of a child-victim, or disobedience as to a parent's directions.
The fifth statement about not suing will actually result in a lawsuit most of the time. The insurance companies know that a dog bite victim almost always is reluctant to sue a dog owner who is a friend, neighbor or family member. When the adjuster interviews the dog owner, therefore, he will ask whether the victim or his family said they will not sue (or something along those lines). If the answer is yes, the adjuster will conclude that with or without an attorney the victim will ultimately take anything that is offered, even if it is unfair and inadequate. This will lead to a lawsuit if the victim has enough self-respect to desire the same level of compensation as other victims receive, because he will have to file suit to achieve it.
The temptation to assert "I am never going to sue you" is strongest when the dog owner finds out that the victim retained an attorney to protect his rights. There are other things the victim can say, however, that can safely diffuse the situation.
- You can tell the dog owner that you retained an attorney because her insurance company has about 1,000 lawyers and you thought that one against 1,000 would make it a bit fairer for you.
- You could say that you don't want to play make-believe lawyer, and so you retained one to protect your interests and also to avoid having to talk to your friends about this at all. The point being that you don't want to talk about it.
- If necessary you could point out that it's great that they she has the insurance and that if anyone should benefit from it, it should be a friend, neighbor or relative like you rather than a stranger.
These are all good points that people usually find convincing. Again, never say you won't sue. If she asks whether you are going to sue, tell her that this is a matter between your lawyer and her insurance company and that you trust that they are professional enough to handle the matter civilly and amicably. Don't go any further than that.
Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips explains why making a dog bite claim will not hurt the dog owner in this video: