Dog bites are a common problem in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 4 ½ million people per year suffer dog bites, with 885,000 – half of them children – requiring medical attention and 27,000 requiring reconstructive surgery. Dogs are also commonly responsible for injuries to property, including other animals.
All states hold dog owners legally responsible for any damages or injury caused by their animals; however, different states have different circumstances for holding the owner responsible. Some states have a “one free bite” rule, meaning that the owner is not held legally responsible unless and until the owner has reason to know that the dog bites. Here, in order to collect damages from the owner, you would have to prove that the owner had reason to know that the dog would bite or otherwise injure. Other states, such as California, have statutes holding an owner responsible whether or not he/she knew that the dog bites or otherwise injures. This “strict liability” often means that the owner can be sued under both the common law and the dog-bite statute of the state. An owner who is held legally liable will be responsible for the victim’s “damages,” typically including: medical care and any expenses related to it; lost income; physical disability; physical disfigurement; loss of educational, social or family experiences; emotional damages like depression, stress, embarrassment or strained relationships; and property damage. In addition, for public safety reasons, a dog owner could conceivably pay a fine, be jailed and even be required to destroy the dog.
Some states, including California, have also instituted administrative procedures for controlling dogs that are “potentially dangerous” or “vicious.” If, after an administrative hearing, a dog is found to be “potentially dangerous,” then: the dog is registered as potentially dangerous; it must be kept indoors or in a securely fenced yard and can be off the property only when restrained by a substantial leash of appropriate length and only if a responsible adult is controlling the dog; and/or if the dog dies, is sold, transferred or permanently removed from the owner’s city/county, then the owner has 2 working days to notify the animal control department of the change and of the dog’s new location; plus other restrictions that the court might deem reasonable and necessary. If, after administrative hearing, the dog is found to be “vicious,” then: severe restrictions can be placed on the owner to protect the public from the dog; or the dog can be destroyed. Forms for bringing such an administrative proceeding are normally readily available: in California, for example, they can be obtained online from the Judicial Council of California at http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/mc600.pdf.
What, then, should you do if you are attacked by a dog or see someone else being attacked by a dog? Some steps will overlap or should be taken earlier than listed here, depending on medical needs. First, you are allowed to defend yourself or the other person in order to stop the dog’s attack. These self-defensive acts can range all the way up to literally killing the dog, depending on what it takes to stop the attack. Secondly, you should get the names, addresses and phone numbers of the owner and any witnesses, and should write down the dog’s description and dog tag information, if available. Third, seek medical attention if necessary, and keep records of your doctor/hospital care and bills. Fourth, report the incident to your local animal control department, whether or not the dog has a tag and whether or not you know who owns it. Animal control will attempt to retrieve the dog and quarantine it. If you do not know how to contact the animal control department quickly, call the police. In addition, when you contact the animal control department and/or police, check to see whether there is a history of this dog’s attacks on or menacing behavior toward other people or animals; if there is such a record, obtain a copy and keep it with your other papers. Fifth, contact a Personal Injury lawyer. Armed with your information and documents, the personal injury lawyer can deal with the animal control department and/or police and/or courts, negotiate with the owner (often with the owner’s homeowner’s insurance), and/or bring a civil suit in your behalf.
[Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither HandelontheLaw.com, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]