Dogs At Large
What happens when the court comes for your dog?
Every year, an average of nearly 17,000 claims are filed against a person on behalf of man’s best friend – dogs. Whether it be an aggressive dog attack or a harmless pup’s playful accident, thousands are hospitalized, and lawsuits are filed. Many people never consider the legal repercussions of owning a dog; or even, that their furry friend could inadvertently cause an injury. And most people would never assume their dog could or would intend to cause harm. Let’s dive into this complicated legal issue of dogs in court — an issue that anyone who owns a dog should be aware of.
Intent and Injury
Most people don’t think twice about how their newest family member will affect them legally. Yet, it is a misconception to think that the only dogs that are a liability are aggressive breeds or dogs with a history of aggressive behavior. The Insurance Information Institute (ISI) states that of the 63 million households that own dogs, the majority of those bitten are children under 2 who have yet to understand healthy boundaries with pets. Even dogs with no history of aggressive tendencies can snip a child in a moment of rough play, or an old, arthritic dog might bite if its personal space is invaded.
First and foremost, it is important to teach your children healthy boundaries with dogs to prevent injury. If your child is too small to understand gentle touches, model healthy ways to approach dogs you know and remove the child from the situation if necessary. Teach your children to ask a dog’s owner before petting. If the owner says it’s O.K., make sure your child is using gentle and slow movements by getting on your child’s level in order to monitor the situation fully. Being vigilant about dog safety can help your child learn healthy boundaries with dogs and keep them safe from injuries that could have been prevented.
If your child was bitten by a dog, even a friendly, non-aggressive one, it still causes harm. As we have discussed, just because a dog is generally sweet, does not meet it will not be liable in the court of law. Injury nearly always outweighs intent when it comes to our K-9 friends.
Property or Part of the Family
But where do dogs stand within the court of law? For families who consider their dog a part of the family akin to offspring, it may be difficult to understand that dogs are deemed as property within the legal court system. One reason for this is that they fall under the ownership of the person that adopted them. Unlike children, however, they are not considered “legal persons” but “legal things,” more like something you purchased for your home.
Consider this, if a person injures themselves on your property and you are deemed at fault, they are entitled to compensation, and it is the same if a pet that falls under your ownership and injures a person. The main difference between your dog and other types of personal property, is that your dog can move, bark, chase, and bite, unlike a sofa or chair. So, if your dog runs at or harms another person, legally speaking, it is your responsibility.
Laws for dogs are determined at the state level. Currently, owners are liable in 29 states if their pet causes harm with many exceptions and specifications per state law. This is where it gets tricky. In some states, there are dog-bite statutes in which the owner is fully liable for any bite from their pet. In others, there are one-bite rules, which state that the victim must prove the owner had some knowledge of the dog’s aggression before the incident. And then, there are negligence laws in which owners are liable if it can be proved the owner was careless in looking after the dog when the incident occurred.
Needless to say, if you own a pet, it is important to understand what the law is in your state if you are worried about the liability from your pet. There are often exceptions and exclusions to these laws as well. We recommend that the best way you can protect yourself, in this case, is through your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy.
Spotlight on Homeowner’s Insurance
One way to protect yourself from a potential crisis is by looking into your homeowner’s insurance policy. Many insurance policies cover most family dog breeds and you can rest easy knowing that in the unlikely event of injury, you will be protected. However, many insurance companies have recently begun eliminating certain breeds from their coverage. Some have deemed pit bulls a “high risk” dog, and refuse to insure them or may charge a higher rate. Quite often, coverage is on a case-by-case basis; if your dog has bitten before, it raises the risk for the insurers, just like when you are in a car accident and it raises your premium.
Always make sure to get a clear answer from your homeowner’s insurance policy about coverage for your dog. Find out if your breed is covered and if not, how to make sure your pup is. Some insurance companies require training for specific dog breeds. If you complete the training programs, you will not only have a safer, more obedient friend but also coverage in case of an accident.
My Dog is at Fault – What’s Next?
If you find yourself in a situation in which your dog is at fault for injuring another person, most likely, you will be held responsible if the victim decides to file a claim. In this instance, you will be responsible for the victim’s medical bills, including surgeries required, physical therapy, future consultations, and any other medical treatment needed from the injury. You must also take into consideration that you could also be held responsible for financial loss resulting in the victim’s inability to go to work. Finally, there are more intangible results of an injury such as pain, suffering, depression, or loss of enjoyment that you could be held accountable for.
The best way to avoid being responsible is to prevent the attack or injury from occurring in the first place. Train your dog, keep it fenced or leashed, and never assume anything. In the event that an accident occurs, however, make sure your pup is covered under your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy so that you and your family can be protected.
I Have Been Injured By a Dog – What Now?
If you or a minor in your family is injured by a dog, it is important to contact a lawyer as soon as possible to find out if you deserve compensation for your injuries. Your lawyer will know what the laws require in your state, and if the dog is considered at fault for the incident. In many cases of dog injuries, you will be entitled to compensation through the owner or their homeowner’s insurance.
A Pup’s Purpose
Though it is best to hope that our K-9 friends will always be there for us, accidents do happen, and it is best to be prepared when they do – until then, look into your insurance policies, state laws, and practice obedience with your pup. Being prepared for potential liability can help alleviate any anxiety you might have about an incident occurring; that way you can sit back and enjoy life with your dog, letting Fido do what he does best – be your best friend.
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