If you have been attacked by a dog that belongs to someone else, you have a dog bite claim against the owner. Not all dog bite claims are created equal, however. Some claims are sure winners while others are virtually worthless. In addition to the amount of the likely payout on a successful claim, you will need to consider your likelihood of victory. Several factors need to be considered in order to accurately forecast your chances in court or at the settlement table.
State and Local Law
Dog bite law varies in significant ways from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, because in addition to state statutes, city and county governments often pass dog control ordinances. In some states a dog owner bears strict liability for a dog bite even if he took adequate care to prevent the dog from attacking anyone. Other states impose a “one bite rule” that immunizes a dog owner from liability if the dog had never acted aggressively before. Furthermore, you can improve your chances of victory by showing that the defendant violated a relevant animal control ordinance, such as a leash law.
The most common defenses to a dog bite claim include:
- Provocation: If you provoked the dog into attacking you, even many strict liability jurisdictions will refuse to impose liability on the dog owner. Nevertheless, the owner might still be held liable if the dog overreacted to a minor provocation.
- The “zero bite” defense: In one bite rule states, the dog owner can win by showing that he had no reason to believe the dog was dangerous.
- Comparative fault: If you were partly at fault for the attack – by trespassing on the owner’s property, for example – the defendant’s liability may be reduced by the percentage of fault for the accident that the court attributes to you. If your fault exceeded a certain threshold (50 percent, for example) some states will deny recovery altogether.
- The defendant did not own the dog. This assertion can be surprisingly difficult to refute under certain circumstances, even if it is false.
Your Attorney’s Fee Structure
One important factor in evaluating the value of your dog bite claim is most personal injury lawyers will work with you under a contingency fee arrangement. Under a contingency fee arrangement, you pay nothing up front and you pay no legal fees if you lose. The only way you will ever have to pay any fees to the attorney is if you win your claim (through either courtroom verdict or private settlement), in which case your lawyer takes a percentage of your recovery (typically 30% to 40%). Contingency fee arrangements allow you to afford to press your claim even if you lack the means otherwise.
A dog bite lawyer is unlikely to offer a contingency fee payment arrangement unless he thinks you have a strong case, since he won’t get paid unless you do. Consequently, an experienced dog bite lawyer’s offer of a contingency fee arrangement is a good sign.
The Defendant’s Ability to Pay
Unless the defendant possesses the financial resources to satisfy your claim, a judgement against him is worth no more than an IOU. Fortunately, many homeowner’s insurance policies pay out on dog bite claims, and some dog owners even take out specialized dog bite insurance policies. Even with insurance coverage, however, the total cost of a serious injury might exceed policy limits. Many homeowner’s insurance policies, for example, limit coverage to $100,000.
Dog bite claims are sometimes deceptively complex. If your losses exceed the jurisdictional limits of your local small claims court, it might be a good idea to retain an experienced local dog bite lawyer to represent you.