Because millions of dog bites occur every year, every state and many local governments regulate dog ownership and liability. Owning a dog imposes certain obligations on you and exposes you to the possibility of significant civil liability. If your dog is known to be dangerous for some reason, your potential liability increases in many jurisdictions.
What is a “Dangerous Dog”?
Some jurisdictions do not require certain dogs to act aggressively to justify classifying them as “dangerous”. Certain breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls and Rottweilers, can be classified as dangerous based solely on their breed. Some of these jurisdictions do not allow certain breeds within city or county limits. Some jurisdictions will also classify a dog as dangerous if it has been trained as an attack dog.
If your dog can be classified as dangerous, you may be legally required to register the dog with the local animal control authority and comply with certain restrictions, such as erecting a “Beware of Dog” sign in your front yard. Failure to comply could subject you to a fine or other penalties even if your dog doesn’t attack anyone. More importantly, your defense against a dog bite claim will be greatly impaired if the victim can establish that you knew the dog was dangerous even before the attack.
The Provocation Defense
Some jurisdictions impose liability without fault on a dog owner whose dog bites someone, while others require the dog to have acted aggressively in the past for the owner to be held liable. Just about any jurisdiction will allow you to raise a provocation defense if the victim provoked the dog prior to the attack. Even a provocation defense might not work, however, if the dog overreacted to a slight provocation.
Composition of a Claim for Dog Bite Damages
If you lose a dog bite claim or agree to a settlement to avoid a lawsuit, you may end up having to pay for a lot more than medical bills, depending on the seriousness of the victim’s injuries. Damages in dog bite injury cases are governed by same fundamental principles that apply to other personal injury cases. If you are found liable you may have to compensate the victim for all of his losses, including but not necessarily limited to lost wages and pain and suffering.
Although the average damages award in a successful dog bite lawsuit exceeds $30,000, your liability could be much more than that if your dog seriously injures or kills someone. If your personal conduct was particularly outrageous (leaving a rabid dog untreated and roaming freely, for example), you might even face criminal charges as serious as homicide.
Although most homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies cover dog bite liability, there is a growing trend among homeowner’s insurance companies to deny or limit this type of coverage. Even if your policy does cover dog bite liability, your policy limits might be low or your coverage might be riddled with loopholes. Stand-alone dog bite liability insurance policies are available from some insurers, and even homeowner’s insurance policies might offer enhanced coverage for an extra fee.
To minimize your potential liability, observe the following safety tips:
- Keep your dog leashed and muzzled whenever it is off your property, regardless of whether or not local law requires this.
- Erect a “Beware of Dog” sign in your yard, especially if your dog is an “outside dog”.
- Check the animal control laws of your jurisdiction and strictly comply with them.
- Avoid playing aggressive games such as tug-of-war with your dog.
- Have your dog “fixed”, especially if it is male.
- Purchase adequate dog bite insurance coverage.