Pity the poor dog bite case. Of all of the various types of lawsuits that injury claimants bring, perhaps none is looked down upon like those where a pooch has nipped someone’s heels. These cases are sometimes easy to make fun of, but the victims of animal attacks don’t consider them laughing matters. Just last March, an attorney in the Martinsville, Virginia area settled a case for $280,000. His client sustained hand fractures, deep lacerations, infections, and permanent loss of range of motion. It is clear that all domestic animals are capable of inflicting serious harm. But, are their owners always responsible?
It is important to clarify that the law places liability on people, not animals. We frequently have to remind our clients that just because an animal has bitten or attacked you, the path to winning your lawsuit may not be clear.
Since the blame (if any) lies with human beings, we frequently have to examine their conduct with regard to their animals and the personality of their pets. Aggressive animals with a propensity to bite require a higher degree of care. For example, a four foot fence may not be enough to contain a pit bull with proven jumping abilities. A case could even be made that an animal that is known to jump up on people may not be properly secured even on a long leash. Additional attention must be focused on the location of the injury. Did the owner allow the animal to run into a public area? Was it a playground where children are known to play? Or did the animal unexpectedly break away?
Some of the original “animal liability” cases arose out of cows and other large animals stepping into public roads. We may even look back to the times of the Bible to see whether damages are owed when someone’s ox gets gored.
In more modern times, a complete analysis of the time, place, circumstances and events are necessary to determine whether a valid case exists. But before reaching this issue, injury victims should get as much information as they can. This can frequently be done by calling the local animal control office and initiating an investigation. Minimally, it may be helpful in identifying the animal, getting the owner’s name and determining whether the animal has been properly vaccinated. Once this has been done and the injuries are stable, it is important to consult with competent counsel to see if you have a claim. Like premises liability cases, the answer may not be so simple. Whether the case has merits or is simply a “dog,” you will want to speak to an attorney who knows what to look for.