As a dog owner, you love your pet like a child and never expect to be involved in a lawsuit after an attack. However, the reality is that dog attacks happen every day, and dog owners sometimes face serious consequences as a result. If you have questions about your case and what you should do after receiving notice of a lawsuit, a personal injury lawyer with experience in dog bite cases can help you understand the next steps and possibly build a defense against the claim.
Who Is Liable in a Dog Bite Accident Case?
In states that follow the “one-bite rule,” the owner may not be liable if the dog has no history of violence or aggression, but only a handful of states follow that rule. Instead, most adhere to the legal concept of strict liability in cases involving dog bites. As a result, dog owners are typically liable when their dog attacks another person. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, you may not be liable if:
- The plaintiff committed a tort at the time of the attack. For example, they could be liable if they assaulted you or someone else and the dog attacked in defense.
- The plaintiff was trespassing at the time of the attack. For example, some dogs are territorial and will protect their homes. Therefore, if the plaintiff entered your property unlawfully, prompting the attack, they would be liable.
- The plaintiff provoked the dog to attack. They could be liable if they teased the dog, knowingly risking an attack.
The law is relatively straightforward in these cases. However, the circumstances surrounding every case differ, and state laws determine how to approach liability. Therefore, the first step in building a defense for the claim against you is carefully evaluating the sequence of events.
What Are the Possible Defenses for a Dog Bite Claim?
There are two ways a defendant can win a dog bite injury case: by providing a solid defense against the claim or convincing the court that the plaintiff did not sufficiently prove liability. All personal injury cases require the plaintiff to present sufficient evidence to support their claim of negligence and damages. A challenge for the defendant is that the burden of proof in these cases is lower than in criminal court. The plaintiff only needs to convince the court that their narrative of the incident is more likely than not true. If you cannot disprove the claim, your approach would be to build an affirmative defense.
The Trespassing Defense
Most states have a dog bite statute that allows an exception to strict liability in cases where the plaintiff trespassed at the time of the attack. How well this defense works can depend on the state. For example:
- In states that follow the one-bite rule, it may not matter whether the injured person trespassed. However, even if the owner knew the dog was a potential danger, the court is typically reluctant to rule in favor of someone unlawfully present on the property.
- Some courts may still hold the dog owner responsible if, for example, they acted unreasonably when the plaintiff trespassed. Additionally, many states have specific exceptions to the trespassing rule for children.
- The most common response is to follow the strict liability ruling: trespassers do not have the right to claim compensation for injuries from a dog attack while unlawfully present on someone else’s property.
If the injured party in your case was trespassing when your dog attacked, you could speak to an attorney about the laws in your state and whether that is a viable defense given the circumstances.
The Carelessness Defense
Liability is not always black and white in a dog attack case. Some states consider the plaintiff’s carelessness as a contribution to their injuries. In only a small number of states, this could absolve the defendant of any responsibility for damages. Those states follow the contributory negligence rule, which mandates that anyone even partially liable for their injuries cannot request compensation. However, the vast majority of states follow the comparative negligence rule, which allows the plaintiff to recover damages minus an amount equal to their percentage of fault. If the plaintiff sues under a dog bite statute, the comparative negligence rule may not apply.
The Provoking Defense
If you can prove the plaintiff provoked the dog to attack, you can likely avoid liability, even in a strict liability state, where the dog owner is almost always at fault. Depending on the specific circumstances of the incident, the court may determine you are not liable if the plaintiff unintentionally provoked the dog. For example:
- If they petted the dog during feeding or while chained
- If they accidentally stepped on the dog’s tail or feet
- If they intervened in a dog fight
- If they reacted in self-defense by spraying the dog with dog spray
For example, if a small child ran up to pet your dog during feeding time, they could unintentionally provoke an attack.
The Lack of Injury Defense
The lack of injury defense is simple. Aggressive dogs can be scary, but if there is no attack or injury, there are no grounds for a lawsuit. Personal injury cases require damages to be valid. The dog could chase or scare the other person, but if they never successfully attacked, there is no case. Without injury, there are no damages, and without damages, there is nothing to recover.
The Other Tort Defense
If the plaintiff in your case committed another tort at the time of the attack, you likely have a strong defense. Take, as an example, the previously mentioned scenario where the plaintiff assaulted you and your dog responded in defense. Assault falls under the definition of a civil tort, also known as personal injury. In this case, the plaintiff would be criminally liable for the assault committed against you and civilly liable for their own damages. They can attempt to sue you, but your attorney could easily build a case to absolve you of all responsibility for damages. They may advise you to file a claim of your own if you suffered an injury because of the attack.
How Can a Dog Bite Attorney Help You?
Getting sued after a dog attack can be scary. Even if you did everything within your power to prevent and stop the attack, you could still face significant financial repercussions. The process can be even more frustrating if you do not have the necessary insurance coverage to pay for damages. Rather than enter the suit blindly, you could call an experienced dog bite injury attorney and ask questions.
At Jason Stone Injury Lawyers, we have a team of personal injury attorneys with a background in dog attack cases. We know the challenges ahead of you and the laws governing dog attack cases, and we understand your financial burden. To help alleviate that and your worries, we provide a free case evaluation. If we decide to take on your case, we offer our services at no upfront costs. The first element of the Stone Cold Guarantee is that we only get paid if you get paid. Contact Jason Stone Injury Lawyers today for your risk-free consultation.