Payouts in successful dog bite cases average over $30,000 per claim, and some dog owners end up assuming far greater liability. Other potential negative consequences of dog bite liability include forcible euthanasia of the dog and, in extreme cases, criminal charges against the owner. A responsible dog owner, however, can avoid or minimize dog bite liability with a little foresight.
Understand Local Dog Bite Law
Dog bite liability varies considerably depending on where you live, because most dog bite law is generated by state and local governments. In some jurisdictions, a dog owner is strictly liable for injuries caused by his dog, which means that your only defense might be provocation – a claim that the victim caused the bite by provoking the dog.
Some jurisdictions, by contrast, apply a negligence standard that will shield you from liability for a dog bite as long as you took appropriate safety precautions and as long as the dog had never acted aggressively before. Once your dog has bitten on one occasion, however, you are strictly liable for any further incidents.
Even in a jurisdiction that applies a negligence standard to dog bites, violating an animal control law could subject you to strict liability for a dog attack. Some cities, for example, ban the presence of certain aggressive dog breeds from inside city limits altogether, while other jurisdictions forbid the dog from leaving the owner’s property without a leash.
Take Appropriate Safety Precautions
The best way to protect yourself from dog bite liability is to prevent your dog from attacking anyone in the first place (instead of hoping to successfully defend yourself once a dog bite occurs). Taking the following measures can significantly minimize your risk:
- Choose an appropriate breed to minimize the risk of an attack. Some breeds, such as pit bulls, tend to be more aggressive than others.
- Neuter your male dog. Sexually active males tend to be more aggressive than neutered males.
- Keep your dog on a leash whenever it is outside – even on your own property if it is not securely enclosed.
- Muzzle your dog on appropriate occasions if it has ever displayed aggressive behavior before.
- Don’t play aggressive games with your dog – “fetch”, for example, is safer than “tug-of-war”.
- Train your dog (for obedience, not for fighting!).
- Carefully monitor any children near your dog, because a child might not know any better than to provoke your dog into an attack.
- Erect a “Beware of Dog” sign in your yard. This can help you avoid liability in some jurisdiction even if a dog bite does occur, because it will allow you to argue that the victim assumed the risk of a bite if he ignored the sign (by trying to pet the dog, for example)
Purchase Adequate Liability Insurance
Most homeowner’s insurance policies cover dog bite liability at least up to $100,000 (as do most renter’s insurance policies). In fact, homeowner’s insurance policies pay out nearly $500 million a year for dog bite claims. Some policies, however, limit their coverage with numerous exceptions or impose inadequate liability limits, while other policies exclude coverage for dog bite claims altogether. Read your policy carefully and understand its terms.
If you find that your current insurance coverage is inadequate, you can purchase supplementary coverage from your homeowner’s insurance carrier or, alternatively, you can purchase stand-alone dog bite liability insurance.
If, despite taking appropriate precautions, you are faced with a dog bite claim that you find difficult to pay, the services of an insurance defense lawyer can help you defeat the claim or negotiate more affordable settlement.