As a dog bite victim, your legal rights are defined primarily by state and local dog bite statutes as well as state personal injury law. In a general sense, your rights are similar to the legal rights enjoyed by other victims of personal injuries such as car accident victims. It is in the details of your case (which could determine whether you win or lose) where state and local differences come into play.
Strict Liability vs. Negligence
Some states, such as Florida, hold a dog owner strictly liable for injuries caused by anyone he bites, with certain limited exceptions. This means that you don’t have to prove that the dog owner was at fault to win your claim. Other states apply a negligence standard, meaning that to win you must show that the dog owner either acted carelessly or violated a state or local animal control law.
Several defenses might be available to a dog owner, including:
- Provocation: Provocation of the dog prior to the bite can be a partial or complete defense to a dog bite claim, depending on the jurisdiction and the circumstances of the case. Even if you did provoke the dog, you might still win your claim.
- Trespassing: A dog bite victim who was trespassing on the dog owner’s property at the time of the attack has a very weak claim for compensation. Although under certain circumstances it is possible for a trespasser to win a small amount of compensation, this rarely happens.
- Due Care: In states that require a showing that the dog owner was negligent, the dog owner might attempt to establish that he had no prior reason to believe that the dog was prone to violence and that he is therefore not legally liable for the attack.
Filing a Lawsuit
You may file a lawsuit against a dog owner in the same way that you would file any other personal injury lawsuit. Unlike a criminal trial, however, the standard of proof is not “beyond a reasonable doubt” – 51 percent certainty is good enough. The assistance of a skilled personal injury lawyer with experience in dog bite claims could prove dispositive should you choose to file a lawsuit.
Although the average payout for a dog bite claim is over $30,000, you might be entitled to much more if your injuries were serious. You are entitled to compensation for all of your losses including medical bills, lost earnings and pain and suffering.
Settling Out of Court
You can, of course, seek an out of court settlement for a dog bite claim. If you do, you will likely be dealing with a representative of the dog owner’s homeowner’s insurance carrier. You may even have to file a lawsuit and offer to abandon the lawsuit if and only if the defendant agrees to pay out an adequate settlement.
Some jurisdictions will allow you to file a complaint with local animal control authorities to have the dog declared a dangerous dog” or a “vicious dog”. This could result in restrictions being placed on the owner such as muzzling or leashing the dog, or even removing the dog from the jurisdiction. Although in some cases the animal control authorities may even “put the dog to sleep”, local law might require a hearing and a court order to authorize such an extreme measure.
In extreme cases, you might want the prosecutor to pursue criminal charges against the dog owner. Normally this would require that the defendant’s conduct involved “criminal negligence”, which is an extreme form of carelessness, or intentional misconduct — by sending the dog after you, for example. Ultimately, however, the prosecutor would have the authority to determine whether or not to pursue criminal charges against the defendant (normally the dog owner or handler).
If you are in doubt about your options as a dog bite victim, contact an experienced dog bite lawyer such as those found in this directory for a free initial consultation.