Animal Writes
From 20 June 2004 Issue

When Your Dog Becomes Vicious
By Amy Blaymore Paterson
Animal Legal Defense Fund

A dog bite can be traumatic for all concerned. If your dog does the dirty deed, and you are sued, a familiarity with the rules governing dogs and their owners is essential before responding to legal action.

Can you be sued?

In most states, you, as the dog owner, are financially responsible for damages caused by your companion animal.

What is the basis of the lawsuit?

The three most common bases are: a dog bite statute, the common law rule, or ordinary negligence.

1) Dog Bite Statutes. Laws in numerous stares impose "strict liability"; that means the owner is held responsible. regardless of whether he or she was at fault. The effect of these statutes, however, may be mitigated by the conduct of the victim-i.e., if they were trespassing, or teasing, tormenting or provoking the animal. (See owner's defenses, below).

2) The Common Law Rule. In addition to statutes, the courts have developed a system of rules called the "common law". The common law imposes liability on a dog owner if the owner knew the dog was inclined to be dangerous to people and had a tendency to cause the type of injury that was, in fact, suffered.

3) Negligence. Under the negligence theory, the victim must prove that the owner's careless behavior in handling or controlling the dog directly caused the injury.

What type of damages are available?

In most personal injury lawsuits, the victim may be compensated for medical bills and, if relevant, for lost wages as well as damage to property. If the owner's conduct was outrageous or the dog had injured someone previously, the owner may be liable for punitive damages. Damages for pain and suffering, although more difficult to assess. may also be recovered. However. the extent and value of the damages must be proven by the bite victim.

Does the dog owner have any legal defenses?

Available defenses will vary according to the state in which you are sued and the theories under which you are sued You may successfully defend such a lawsuit if you can prove that: the bite victim was trespassing: the victim's own negligence contributed to his injures; the victim provoked the dog into attacking: or the victim knew there was a risk of being injured by the dog, had an opportunity to avoid the injury and did not do so.

In conclusion, know the laws and act responsibly before any injury ensues. In the event of an injury. research your options. You may need to seek the advice of an attorney, or the matter may be amicably settled out of court or through mediation. For a full discussion of your legal rights and responsibilities as a companion animal owner, an excellent resource book is Dog Law by Mary Randolph. published by Nolo Press, 950 Parker Street, Berkeley, CA 94710 ($12.95).

Prevention is the best policy

* When walking your dog, keep him on a leash.
* Keep your dog in an enclosed yard or indoors with you.
* Never allow your dog to roam the neighborhood.
* Always have current license and rabies vaccination tags on your dog's collar.
* If you think your dog might injure someone, don't allow people to approach him; post warning signs on your property and don't allow the dog to "answer" your front door when visitors are there.
* Homeowner's or renter's insurance policies may provide coverage for damage caused by your dog. Check your policy.

For more information on dog bite law, read Dog Law by Mary Randolph. Written for non-lawyers, it's a helpful book on a variety of legal issues relating to canine companions. It's available from Nolo Press, 950 Parker Street, Berkeley, CA 94710, (415) 549-1976.

Amy Blaymore Patterson is an ALDF attorney member, currently in practice with the law firm of Kathleen D. Stingle, Vernon, CT.

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