Dog Bite Liability and Litigation
by: Daniel M. Witte, Attorney
Dogs live in over 46 million households according to a 2011 survey by the American Pet Products Association. Most dog owners believe that their pets are friendly and easy-going. But there are times when even the most docile dog may become unpredictable and could become the aggressor in a vicious dog bite attack causing injury to a person. The statistics are staggering:
• About 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year (cdc.org)
• In 2006, more than 31,000 people had reconstructive surgery due to a dog bite (cdc.org)
• Children are three times more likely to be bitten by a dog than an adult (preventthebite.org)
• Between 12 and 20 people die from dog attacks each year (cdc.org)
The recent story of the mauling death of a toddler in Nevada on his first birthday offers a horrific example of how lives can be changed in a split-second. The dog in this case was a 6 year old, 120-pound, Mastiff-Rhodesian Ridgeback mix owned by the boy’s grandmother. The boy pulled on the dog’s fur as he tried to stand up, but the dog turned and viciously attacked, biting the boy’s face and head before family members could pull the dog off of the boy. The boy was rushed to the hospital but died from his injuries.
While that story ended with the worst possible outcome, many other dog attack victims survive their ordeals only to require multiple reconstructive surgeries and costly therapy to deal with the trauma of the attack. Across the U.S. in 2011, over $479 million was paid out in home owner insurance claims involving dog bites according to the Insurance Information Institute. Statistics from State Farm, the nation’s largest insurer, shows that State Farm insureds in Indiana had the 8th highest number of dog bite claims in the United States in 2011, with 139 reported claims, on which the company paid an estimated $3.5 million.
In general, Indiana common law presumes that all dogs, regardless of breed or size, are harmless. This presumption can be overcome by evidence of a known vicious or dangerous propensity of the particular dog. The owner or keeper of a dog who knows of any vicious propensity is required to use reasonable care to prevent the dog from causing injury. Furthermore, the owner of a dog is expected to use reasonable care to prevent injury that might result from the natural propensities of dogs. Thus, whether the owner or keeper of the animal is aware of any vicious propensity, the legal description of the duty owed is the same: that of reasonable care under the circumstances.
Indiana also has a specific statute that imposes strict liability on dog owners if their dog bites a postal worker, or other authorized government employees who are required to enter onto property as part of their official duties.
Knowing some basic safety measures you can take to protect yourself from becoming the victim of a dog attack can save your life. Follow this advice to protect yourself and others from being attacked by a dog and bitten:
• Never approach an unfamiliar dog
• Do not try to pet a dog who is eating, nursing puppies, or chewing on a toy
• Always ask the dog’s owner for permission to pet the dog
• If you are attacked, resist the urge to scream and run–the dog will chase you
• If you are knocked to the ground in an attack, roll into a ball and protect your face
Other resources are available at www.humanesociety.org . Remember that in the summertime, there are more people and pets walking around. Knowing what to do in the event of an attack and being aware of your surroundings can make all the difference.