Dog bites are among the most impactful incidents that can unfold. Given the long history that dogs have with humans, it is no surprise that many people become shocked or terrified when dogs lash out. Although some dog breeds are classified as more dangerous than others (pit bulls are responsible for around 65% of reported bites, for example), there is the chance that any breed will act viciously or be dangerous to be around. Further, a dog is more likely to bite if it has not been spayed or neutered, perhaps because of the increased levels of hormones and aggression that can be present. There are an estimated 90 million dogs owned as pets in the country. The amount of dog bites is very small relative to the amount of dogs – there are about 4.5 million attacks annually – or 5%. Fortunately, there are fewer than 50 deaths per year related to dog bites. This is because most victims are not bitten in areas that can quickly lead to death, such as the jugular or femoral artery. With respect to injuries, 81% of dog bites are minor and do not require medical attention. Dog bites generally occur on the property of the dog owners, and 77% of the attacks are carried out against family or friends. This may be due to the dog seeing the individual as encroaching on his or his immediate owner’s territory, or because he may be afraid or feel threatened. Over half of dog attacks are carried out on children; some children may unwittingly annoy or threaten a dog, and it is not uncommon for a dog to react accordingly. California alone accounts for 15% of dog bite incidents. In 2017, there were nearly 500 lawsuits filed for dog bites. This can be attributed to many factors, such as the high population of California and the more dog-friendly atmosphere present in many areas, such as dog parks, breweries, beaches, and more.
Why Dogs May Bite
Dogs are generally predictable creatures, especially if they have been properly trained and have a calm demeanor. However, some dogs may bite for seemingly no reason, while others may be aggressive if there is a specific trigger. It is important to understand why some dogs bite so you can recognize such situations and extricate yourself as necessary. In some scenarios, though, you may not be able to do so; dogs that have escaped from their yards or have been unleashed may be extremely dangerous and lunge at victims for many reasons.
A few reasons dogs may bite include:
- Reaction to stressful situations, such as being in a new location, being transported in a crate, a car accident, fireworks shows, storms, and more
- Feeling threatened by an individual or another dog, such as by being backed into a corner, advanced upon, chased, and more
- Protecting its owner from perceived threats or invaders, protecting its property or territory from unwanted individuals, or protecting its puppies or other dogs from harm
- Upon being startled from sleep, snuck up on from behind, suddenly jumped out at, sudden appearances, and more
- Sickness, which may translate to biting to prevent any additional pain
- During playtime, which can include rough housing or a lack of training or regard from an owner; this may cause dogs to believe that play can involve hard bites and such
You should be constantly aware of dogs and potential warnings from them indicating that they may bite. Dogs that are stressed or angry will growl, bark, assume a low posture, snap, and feint with attacks. It is also wise to avoid situations that may increase the risk for dog bites. A few ways you can avoid being bitten include:
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- Do not approach unfamiliar dogs, especially not while on private property or with an aggressive manner
- Always ask the owner if it is appropriate to pet a dog in public, and do not press the situation if the dog is not responsive or is clearly fearful or threatened
- Do not disturb dogs while they sleep, tend to their puppies, eat, or protect their owners
- Allow a dog to sniff you before you make contact
- Spay or neuter your own dogs to reduce aggression
- Socialize your dog with other animals and people from a young age so that anxiety is reduced
- Do not place your dog in stressful situations
- Walk backwards and away from a dog that you feel is likely to bite you
- Feed the dog an object or article of clothing as opposed to a limb to preoccupy the animal while you escape
Of course, there are some situations in which dogs escape and attack people. These situations almost always result in fight or flight reactions, and victims may be severely hurt in the incidents.
Dog Bite Injuries
Although most dog bites are not serious and do not require medical treatment, there are still many risks and a high chance of injury. Dogs can bite extremely hard and have a lot of strength, especially in tearing motions from side to side. Although few people die from dog bites, there is still the potential for serious or permanent injuries. Some of the injuries include:
- Broken bones
- Lacerations and open wounds
- Internal organ damage
- Loss of mobility
- Blood loss
- Puncture wounds
- Crushing injuries
- Severed limbs
- Nerve damage
- Muscle damage
- Permanent disfigurement
Some victims of dog bites have needed to undergo hours of surgery to repair their wounds, and others have required multiple medical procedures to return to functionality. Some dogs are much stronger than others and their bites have higher PSIs. You should always do your best to fight off a dog if you are being attacked, as you run a greater risk of sustaining additional damages if you do nothing.
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Strict Liability on Dog Bites
In California, there is no one-bite rule. The one-bite rule states that dog owners cannot be held liable for their dogs’ actions if the dogs have not previously attacked or bitten anyone. Strict liability laws, on the other hand, state that a dog owner will be held accountable for the dog’s actions even if the dog owner was not negligent. It should be noted, however, that the dog owner can only be held strictly liable if the dog actually bit someone and the individual was in a public place or lawfully present on private property. This means that a dog owner is strictly liable if a dog bites someone in a public park, but not if the dog bites someone who is trespassing, such as home invaders. Dog bite victims cannot sue or hold owners liable in a dog bite lawsuit in the following circumstances:
- The dog was a police or military animal part of a unit that was acting in the scope or course of its duties or employment, such as by attacking a suspect, searching for drugs, or protecting its handler
- The dog did not actually bite; this can occur if the dog only scratched, tackled, or jumped on a victim
- The dog bit another animal or pet; since pets are considered personal property, an owner cannot be held strictly liable and the plaintiff must pursue property damage compensation
- The victim is operating under the “Assumption of Risk Law” or “Veterinarian’s Rule,” which prevents people who work professionally with canines from suing due to the fact that they assume that the possibility of being bitten is a real and true risk (examples of these individuals or professions include groomers, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, dog walkers, dog sitters, dog trainers, kennel workers, and more)
There are a few different ways that dogs can be considered dangerous. The presence of dangerous dogs and the incidence of bites could require dogs to be removed from the area or euthanized. A dog is listed as dangerous if:
- The dog forced people to defend against aggressive behavior in two or more separate incidents in the last three years
- The dog bit someone with no provocation or reason
- The dog bit or injured a domestic animal or pet twice in the last three years
A dog can be further labeled as vicious if it aggressively injured or killed an individual with no provocation or if the court determined the dog was dangerous and no action was taken by the owner to restrain it or the dog repeated the same behavior. There are many nuances present in laws pertaining to dogs and dog bites, and you should be well aware of all of them. You do not want to fall into a potentially unfavorable situation because of a misinterpretation with the law. It will very likely be in your best interest to pursue the assistance of a skilled legal representative who can inform you of everything you need to know with the law and what the best course of action should be moving forward.
Suing for Damages from a Dog Bite
If you intend to file a claim against the responsible party for injuries you suffered from dog bites, you should know that strict liability may be applied. You also must be able to show negligence if there is no strict liability in play. To do so, you must prove that you were owed a duty of care by the responsible party that was breached in some manner and that the breach of duty led to an incident that caused you physical harm. Bear in mind that if you wish to sue, you can only take action against the dog owner. This means that a handler or friend watching a dog cannot be the target for your lawsuit.
To successfully file a claim, you should have ample evidence to show that you were injured. The first action you should take, though, is to protect yourself and seek medical treatment. You should go to the hospital or call the paramedics as soon as you can to prevent additional damages. The paramedics can treat you and determine if you have any injuries that are not showing up or are taking long to appear. You may not even feel injured due to adrenaline, but you should still go to the hospital or see a doctor anyway. This will also impact your claim if you do not go the insurance agent responsible for handling your case could easily claim that you were hurt elsewhere or bitten by another dog if there is a large gap between the incident and the treatment. You should take care to seek medical treatment in a timely manner.
Evidence for your lawsuit can include the following:
- Pictures of your injuries
- Receipts and notes from hospital staff or the health center
- Pictures of the dogs and the property, especially if the property had no warning signs, if the property was not protected, or if the dogs had no leashes
- Eyewitness testimony to back up your claim
- Surveillance footage or security camera videos if available
- A copy of the police report if the cops were called to the incident
- Previous rulings or investigation details if the dogs were aggressive in the past
- Insurance information and contact details of the dog owner
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All of this evidence can be sorted together and sent to the insurance company when you file a claim. There will also be a demand letter requesting the total compensation for your damages. As long as you have ample evidence, you will be in good shape for the success of your lawsuit.
Value of a Dog Bite Lawsuit
If you file a dog bite lawsuit, the potential for compensation can vary from case to case. This is because some injuries are not as extensive as others and some situations include plaintiffs who were partially negligent or responsible. The value of your claim will be determined by the insurance agent handling the case. He will look at your age, job type, injuries, impact the injuries had on your life and career, extent and severity of the damages, and level of negligence you displayed in the incident before making an offer. That is, if you were younger and weren’t seriously hurt, you may not receive as large of a settlement offer or your claim may not be worth as much when compared to someone who could no longer work and was left disfigured after a dog broke free and attacked him with no provocation. A lawyer can ensure that the insurance agent makes a worthwhile offer. Attorneys will negotiate fair deals and work to bring offers up to match the value of a case. Insurance agents tend to undervalue or make low offers to try and save as much money as possible, which does not benefit victims at all.
The cases below exhibit cases that have gone to court. The victims have been bitten by dogs in a variety of places and for a variety of reasons. It is important to understand the nuances in each case. Some claims yield more money because of the amount of damages requested; other plaintiffs may waive the ability to receive certain coverage because they only want compensation for another damage. You can read on to learn more about certain dog bite lawsuits.
Church v. Sarkis
In Shannon M. Church v. Barbara J. Sarkis, a PSE&G worker was bitten by a dog while working in a customer’s home. Church was completing a job in Sarkis’s home when Sarkis’s dog, a large German Shepherd, bit her. The dog latched onto her lower buttocks for an unknown reason; Sarkis was alleged to not be able to control her dog, even in the home. It could have been the result of territorial behavior by the dog or the perception of Church as an intruder or a threat. Church sustained wound treatment at a hospital for the bite. The more impactful damage was psychological; she said that she acquired deep-seated fears and PTSD from the incident, the condition prevented her from being around or near dogs at all. The incident also affected her sex life and work life. Her work life in particular was affected because she could no longer work on-site in peoples’ homes when dogs were present. Sarkis and the defense admitted liability for the incident. The defense counsel, though, pointed out that Church had numerous mental and psychiatric issues that existed before the incident occurred. Despite Church’s psychologist claiming that she would need over two dozen more visits, the defense stated that she did not need to take off the year from work she did.
The jury sided with the plaintiff, but did not award the maximum requested compensation. Originally, Church requested over $1.7 million in damages, but was only given $131,000 for her previous damages and not for future damages.
Cobb and Colton v. D’Elia
In Gary Cobb and Lora Colton v. Charlotte Bjorlin D’Elia, Conan Hayes, and Rad Ventures LLC, Cobb was bitten by a dog, leading to a bad injury and subsequent lawsuit. Cobb was working on a ranch owned by Hayes. He was tending to the trees when a Rottweiler owned by D’Elia came up to him and bit him on the pinky finger. The bite caused the end of Cobb’s pinky to become extremely damaged in amputation. The reattachment at the hospital did not succeed. D’Elia admitted liability in not being able to control her dog. As a result of the amputation, Cobb complained about nerve pain, anxiety disorder, lack of mobility, and extreme sensitivity. All of the issues contributed to his inability to effectively work due to loss of grip and strength, as well as a decreased quality of life. He suffered flashbacks and various fears and anxieties when confronted with dogs in public thereafter. His wife also put in a claim for loss of consortium based on Cobb’s injuries and subsequent psychiatric issues. The plaintiff did not pursue economic damages. The defense claimed that the amputation was the only damage and denied that additional pains occurred. The jury did not agree and awarded Cobb and his wife a total of $225,000 for the incident.
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Huntsman and Gomez v. Chavez and Clair
In Emma Huntsman and Mauricio Gomez v. Aminta Cuellar Chavez, Elsa Chavez, and Patricia Clair, a pair of individuals was attacked by dogs in an alleyway. Huntsman was walking through an alley between houses when two pit bulls began to attack her. The dogs were owned by the Chavezes, who were not present outside at the time of the incident. Upon seeing the attack happen, Gomez grabbed a weapon and went to Huntsman’s aid. Both individuals were severely wounded in the attack, which culminated in the dogs being shot to police, who arrived at the scene. Huntsman was bitten many times and parts of her forearm were bitten off or ravaged. She had surgery to implant rods in both of her arms to increase stability. She had stitches for the gashes, as well. After months of therapy, she was released with a permanent hole in her arm and significant scarring and disfigurement, as well as a limited amount of mobility. She requires constant care and suffered psychiatric and emotional trauma afterward, including night terrors, nightmares, anxiety, and more. Gomez was bitten in numerous areas as well, and needed skin grafts and reconstructive surgery. He was left with constant pain in some areas and a total loss of sensation and feeling in others. The Chavezes, as well as Clair, the owner of the home, did not answer any calls related to the lawsuit. They did not acquire an attorney, respond to the complaint, or go to court. As a result, they have warrants issued for their arrests. Because of the absence of the Chavezes and Clair, a judge rendered a default verdict of over $6 million. Huntsman would take home the majority, with over $5 million, while Gomez was entitled to the rest.
Christian v. The County of Orange County, Orange County Animal Care Services
In Elaine Christian, M.D. v. The County of Orange, Orange County Animal Care Services, and the City of Laguna Hills, a woman was attacked by three dogs that had previously been labeled as dangerous, though not by the County. Christian was walking in her Laguna Hills neighborhood when three Mastiffs owned by Rodriguez and Paulsen attacked her. The dogs had escaped from the yard of their home and lunged at Christian. After the attack, the dogs were killed to prevent any additional incidents. It was revealed that the dogs had recently bitten another neighbor, but the attack was not reported to Animal Services. The plaintiff’s counsel and defense counsel battled back and forth concerning the previous incident’s relevance to the case. Because the dogs had acted in a similar manner, ultimately, the lack of an investigation was seen as an issue and partially related to Christian’s case. Despite a dismissal, the case was re-tried, and appropriate evidence was brought forth. As a result of the attack, Christian required 8 hours of surgery to close wounds, repair fractures and broken bones, receive stitches, and more. She had tissue damage and large amounts of blood loss from the incident. She was left with heavy scarring and disfigurement from the bites and from the subsequent surgeries. The jury decided that the lack of an investigation on the dogs by Animal Services was partially related to Christian’s injuries. Had the county acted and investigated properly, the dogs may have been muzzled or put down prior to the incident. The jury decided that the County was roughly 10% liable for the incident, while Rodriguez and Paulsen were 90% liable. Christian was awarded over $7.5 million.
Pain and suffering damages for emotional trauma often lead to the biggest case verdicts. This is because many people feel a sense of fear after being attacked and may not feel safe again. Pain and suffering damages often outweigh economic damages by a fair margin. Further, dog bite injuries that are not particularly severe or do not result in a long period of absence or inability make a case’s value decrease.
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Compensation for a Dog Bite Lawsuit
As a victim of a dog bite lawsuit, you could receive various forms of compensation for your injuries. You should not be expected to pay off certain debts and expenses if you were not liable for the incident. The dog owner should be held accountable and pay for the damages his dog caused. You can earn the following forms of restitution:
- Medical expenses from the past and future for surgery, hospitalization, physical therapy, medication, ambulatory transportation, and more
- Lost income from days of missed work, as well as future lost income if you cannot go to your job or earn a living due to medical procedures or recovery time
- Property damage if any personal items or belongings were lost or broken in the incident
- Pain and suffering damages that cover mental or emotional trauma, such as fear, anxiety, terrors, PTSD, psychological scarring, and more
You can pursue wrongful death damages in the event a dog killed a family member or a loved one. These damages can include coverage for the funeral and burial expenses, loss of consortium, loss of relations, loss of expected savings and inheritance, pre-death medical bills, pre-death pain and suffering, and more. In some cases, you can also receive punitive damages, which are handed out in civil lawsuits as a replacement for jail time. These are additional forms of monetary compensation that are handed out in times of gross negligence or when a party intentionally tries to harm you (such as by commanding a dog to attack you). These damages are difficult to win, however, because they are often viewed as excessive to too harsh by judges and juries. Only a talented lawyer will be capable enough to win them.
Statute of Limitations on Dog Bite Lawsuits
In California, you only have 2 years from the date of the injury to file a claim against the responsible party for injuries you suffered in a dog bite incident. The statute of limitations is in place to ensure that you do not take too long to file a claim. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that key evidence will be lost or will become corrupted. Two years is ample time to gather evidence and for the defendant to prepare the defense. In some situations, the 2-year limit can be extended. This is most common in incidents where the plaintiff is under the age of 18 years old; because minors cannot sue, the statute of limitations may be suspended and begin when they turn legal age. Additionally, some individuals may be left physically or mentally compromised after a dog attack. If this happens, the victim can wait until he returns to mental or physical functionality before he takes legal action. In order to escape the possibility of legal action, some defendants may leave the state. In the time that they are absent from California, the statute of limitations will not count down. It will resume once the defendant returns. You cannot file a civil lawsuit against an individual who is not in the state. The different deadlines and dates can be very confusing or difficult to adhere to. This is why it is generally recommended that victims seek legal representation to ensure that their lawsuits are carried out on time and they do not miss any important deadlines.