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How Do Dog Bite Lawsuits Work

Last updated Monday, June 26th, 2023

How Do Dog Bite Lawsuits Work

The article is an extract from the ‘Ask The Hammer‘ podcast in which I answer the most popular questions about the law and discuss the factors you can use to assess how dog bite lawsuits work.

What are your next steps after you’ve gone through a dog bite incident and you’re the victim?

Go to the emergency room. Treat your injury, and then contact the attorney. The attorney will try to find the dog’s owner and notify animal control or the dog pound to see if the dog is licensed. Every dog is supposed to be licensed. 

How about a situation where you can’t find the dog’s owner? 

You must start looking at your homeowner’s coverage if you get bitten by a dog and don’t know who it is.

Every person, whether they have rental or homeowners insurance, should have full coverage if they get bitten by a stray dog. You hope to have coverage like that.

Dog bites are complicated cases in a nutshell. That’s why you always want to meet with your insurance agent and have full coverage.

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Dog Bite Cases in Indiana and Kentucky

According to the Insurance Liability Institute, the costs associated with dog bite treatment have risen dramatically over the years. 

Dog bites result in scars and leave a mark. Many people forego scar revision depending on the scar’s location and severity.

The progress in plastic surgery and scar revision also adds to the costs. That’s the primary component, not only the medical bills and the pain but also getting you back to one hundred percent of where you were before the dog bite. 

Can I file a lawsuit, and can I sue if a dog bites me?

Liability for dog owners varies from state to state based on state laws. The primary step in any dog bite situation is to identify all insurance policies that provide liability coverage.

Attempt a settlement before filing a lawsuit.

In many dog bite cases, whether they are strict liability or negligence cases, there is a likelihood that the case will settle before filing a lawsuit. Lawsuits are necessary in some cases.

In Kentucky, the dog doesn’t even have to bite a person.

For example, if a person, such as a grandpa, is visiting a house and a dog gets excited and knocks him over, causing him to fall and break his hip, it would be considered compensable in Kentucky.

It is important to note that in Kentucky, an incident doesn’t need to involve a bite for it to be considered compensable. Any incident that results in injury or damage can be considered for compensation.

Who precisely would a person sue in a dog bite case? 

Generally, the responsible party for a dog case is the dog owner.

If it happens on someone’s property, it would be the homeowner. There can be landlord liability if it’s a rental property, although it’s a much more complex case in most situations. Landlords can have some liability if they are found to have been negligent in the matter. 

Usually, the homeowner is the responsible party, and their homeowners’ insurance policy is the typical source of recovery.

Although less common, some people have renter’s insurance, but in general, homeowner’s policies are the primary source of recovery.

How about dog bites on commercial properties like a pet store or a non-profit shelter? How would those work for a lawsuit? 

You occasionally get an animal shelter-type situation. If a dog from an adoption shelter ends up biting people employed there, it will be a worker’s compensation situation rather than a personal injury.

But if it were a pet store, they must have insurance coverage to ensure whoever gets bitten in their store is taken care of.

Dog Bite Liability and One Bite Rule

We see strict liability laws for dog bites that seem in contrast to the one-bite rule.

What do clients and dog bite victims need to know about this?

Kentucky has strict liability for any damage caused by the dog.

Whether it knocks someone over or bites them doesn’t matter. A dog doesn’t need to be vicious. It could have never bitten anybody before. Even if a dog gets excited, knocks somebody over, and causes them to fall, that’s compensable. 

In Indiana, their statute reads a strict liability:

“When a dog without provocation bites a person acting peaceably, and in an area where they’re allowed to be, that dog owner is liable for that.”

There are a few conditions;

  • You’re not supposed to be provoking the dog
  • You’re not supposed to be trespassing 

But if you’re where you’re allowed to be, and you don’t provoke the dog, and it bites you, then there will be a strict liability in Indiana for that.

How would you define the one-bite rule for states? 

The one-bite rule generally applies more to negligence cases and whether the dog owner or a landlord knew of a dog’s propensity to bite people.

When a dog is known to bite people, it creates liability more under a negligence theory where the owners knew or should have known that this dog would act this way; with strict liability, negligence isn’t so much of a question.

If you have trespassing issues, that will fall more into a negligence standard rather than strict liability. 

The one-bite rule, the dog having a propensity, gives you an area under negligence to show that they knew that this dog was prone to do this.

Does the one-bite rule apply to a specific dog, not a breed?

The one-bite rule generally applies to that specific dog, not to a breed, although some ordinances try to provide a legal basis for claims against breeds of dogs.

Some counties and cities have proposed or enacted ordinances that list specific breeds of dogs, and there’s been an intense backlash against that by lovers of those types of dogs.

The one-bite rule generally applies to a specific dog. You can categorize pit bulls or German shepherd rottweilers as the most vicious dogs. But small dogs like chihuahuas can often be just as nasty. 

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What are the typical areas of negligence of a dog owner?

In dog bite cases, when dealing with a negligence standard, it’s “What did the dog owner do that caused this or allowed this to happen?”

For example, in a case I had years ago, the dog owner had leashed their dog on the porch next to the mailbox, surrounded by bushes. A postal carrier was delivering the mail, and as she was leaving the porch, the dog broke free from the leash, which was a retractable one, and attacked her.

Even though the owner had the dog on a leash, the retractable leash allowed the dog to reach the postal carrier quickly, and the fact that the owner left the dog near the mailbox and bushes was a negligence issue.

How would trespassing work in dog cases? If I am trespassing, do there have to be any signs?

You’re responsible for any damage caused by your dog. 

Therefore, if the victim was trespassing, the dog owner will be liable, but the fault will be apportioned, with some of it attributed to the trespasser for being where they should not have been.

Whether you jump a privacy fence and you’re 100 percent at fault because there are no warning or dangerous dog signs up everywhere, or it’s just a small picket fence, and you’re cutting through a yard or something…

The degree of apportionment of liability can change based on the trespassing. 

In Kentucky, dog owners are liable for any injuries caused by their dogs. However, the defense can be that the victim was trespassing by jumping over a tall fence to enter the yard, which may result in most of the fault being placed on the victim.

Indiana has a similar legal principle.

In cases where a dog causes injury without provocation, the owner is strictly liable. However, when it comes to cases involving negligence standards, the liability is determined based on the specific facts of the case.

For example, if a local ordinance requires dogs to be kept on a leash or in a fenced yard, and the owner does not comply with this law and a child trespasses and gets bitten by the dog, the owner would be liable for the injuries even though the child was trespassing.

How would the case be pursued when a dog is on a leash vs. when not on a leash?

That’s not so much of a distinction.

For example, there are some parks where you can let your dog run free. Most larger cities have ordinances that say you must keep your dog on a leash in public.

But if your dog is on a leash and still bites somebody, there will be some liability. If your dog is supposed to be on a leash but is not and bites somebody, there will also be a liability. 

How do you go about gathering evidence in a dog bite case? 

You should identify an address. Identify the dog by name and his owner if you can. Animal control reports are beneficial for that. 

And then pictures of the bites from the minute they happened to the healing process. Scar revision may be necessary if that takes place before the claim is finished.

Taking pictures of injuries in dog bite cases is very important. The images are much more graphic and better at presenting what happened.

What categories of damages typically exist in dog bite cases?

First and foremost, your damage elements will be your medical bills. Your physical pain and mental suffering are compensable. If you’re forced to miss work, lost wages are an aspect. If you need scar revision, you can have future medical needs.

If you have those done beforehand, that becomes part of your medical bills, but they can be claimed as future medicals. 

When are dogs put down?

Some people wrestle with bringing a lawsuit against a dog owner because they love animals; maybe they’re nervous about putting down the dog. 

I have never seen a dog bite case where people must put down the dog. Animal control officers must put the dog down when a dog bites multiple victims over time.

Dogs aren’t put down as part of the one-bite rule process. They must be bad actors and have a history of animal control to step in and put a dog down.

What would be your input for dog owners?

Make sure your fences are secure. Dogs will find a way out if there is any at all.

Keep in mind the character nature of your dog. If you know your dog can be aggressive, ensure the dog is put up and the gate is latched before you let the neighborhood kids in your yard.

Be hyper-aware of what could happen.

What is the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit and dog bite cases in the states you cover? 

In Kentucky, you have a one-year statute of limitation on dog bites. You have one year from the bite date to settle the case with an insurance company or file a lawsuit to recover damages.

Indiana has a two-year statute of limitations from the date. 

If you’re unaware and randomly Google “statute of limitations,” you might get the wrong one, as state law controls these.

Remember, your attorneys must be on top of the law of that particular state.

What special permission do you need to investigate a private location where a dog attack occurred? Can you take photos of somebody getting access to their backyard?

Anytime you have any injury caused by somebody else, contact an attorney. Most personal injury attorneys work on a contingency basis. You don’t owe anything unless we find something for you. So there’s no upfront cost to consult an attorney. 

Regarding documenting the residents and the dogs, you can do that from the sidewalk or the street. If you’re trying to get into a backyard and there’s no alley, there’s a good chance you can get bit again.

You can document things if the dogs are in the front yard. You can get pictures from there and recognize which dog it was. I advise anybody in any situation, car wreck, or dog bite to contact an attorney.

They’ll look at it for you and let you know your next best step.

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