ARE DOG ATTACKS BECOMING MORE COMMON?
It certainly seems that way, but reliable statistics are not available. It might just be that more are reported or become the basis of legal action. It may well be true though, that more owners are keeping dogs that have been bred for fighting over a period of hundreds of years, and they are more aggressive than most. Pit Bull owners for example will often highly praise how gentle their dogs are to them, their little children, and to everyone. Then one day the dog lunges without warning and mauls a child’s face. Why?
No one knows for sure, but one reason may be that dogs are very sensitive to their owners’ feelings. If the owner is annoyed at someone, even a good friend or family member, the dog may think he needs to “protect” his owner, and so attacks on his own. True, this owner undoubtedly did not want that to happen, but how many times did this happen without him taking any action to stop it? Some dogs have such terrible histories, that letting them roam free around unsuspecting people is much like leaving a loaded, cocked pistol on the seat of your couch without your knowledge. A group at Mintz Law Firm, who are Denver workers comp lawyers and personal injury attorneys, have put together a guide that everyone should follow if they ever get bitten by a dog.
WHAT TO DO IF A DOG HAS INJURED YOU OR SOMEONE CLOSE TO YOU:
Get medical attention as soon as possible. With animal bites, there are no minor bites. Any bite can infect you or transmit rabies. You must see a doctor immediately if the skin was broken or there was mouth-to-mucous membrane contact.
In the most serious injuries, some bodily tissue may be detached. Someone needs to recover it and get it to the doctor with the victim.
Try to identify the dog. This is not just for liability purposes. The doctor will need to know if the dog was healthy. Take note where the dog came from (address?); where he went; any identification or memorable markings; color of collar, etc. Try to learn the dog’s name and write it down.
If the owner is nearby, demand to see his identification. Do not take his word for it. Write the information down. Get his or her full address, apartment number, if any, and telephone number.
Contact an experienced attorney to promptly start an investigation.
HOW DO I KNOW IF IT IS WORTHWHILE TO TAKE ANY LEGAL ACTION?
That is easy to know if death or very serious injuries result, but what about other injuries?
There are two reasons that lesser appearing injuries may deserve legal action. Emotional fallout and scarring.
Do all bites merit legal action? No, it depends on the facts of the injury. If it is a child or other person who is emotionally devastated by the attack and is too fearful to even go to school or work, then you should certainly talk to a lawyer. Perhaps there are nightmares that won’t go away, or the victim feels he has to walk blocks out of his way to avoid coming anywhere near a dog. It may merit the help of a counselor or therapist.
What about scarring? The problem with dog attacks is that their teeth can penetrate and rip flesh, but they are not sharp like a knife. They tear rather than cut flesh. There may even be loss of tissue. The frequent result is scarring. There may be need for repeated surgeries. Whether you have insurance to cover the surgeries, and where the scar is may affect whether you need to take legal action. If the break in the skin is small and usually covered by the pant leg or shirt, you may be better off not making a claim. An attorney can best advise you about this. There should be no charge at all for listening and telling you what he or she thinks.
WHO CAN SUE FOR DOG BITE INJURIES AND WHO WILL BE LIABLE?
The injured adult is the one with the right to make the claim or to sue. A child’s claim will be made by his or her parent or guardian. The owner is responsible by statute for any bite by his dog, as long as the victim had a right to be where he was when bitten or attacked. We assume the victim was not provoking or tormenting the dog. Other people can be liable too. A dog walker, a kennel or other person having custody or care of the animal can be liable if they were careless in allowing it to get at the victim.
A person having care of a dog who knows or has reason to know it is dangerous, is negligent if he or she does not take reasonable steps to protect others. If you learn of people who know the dog’s past behavior, be sure to write it down, particularly the identity of the persons who have such knowledge.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF THE OWNER OR AN INSURANCE ADJUSTER WANTS TO “DO THE RIGHT THING” AND COVER YOUR MEDICAL EXPENSES?
Many dog owners feel terrible about the incident and genuinely want to help. They might offer money or offer to pay the medical bills. Then there are others who never take responsibility for their own actions, but will try to get you to “give them a break” based upon promises. They might even be sincere in wanting to pay your expenses, but assume it won’t be much. When the bills mount in the thousands, that promise may evaporate. At the least, get the full name, address and phone number of anyone who makes such an offer, but do not decide it on the spot. Thank them for the offer, and tell them you’ll get back to them about it.
If an insurance adjuster or investigator for the owner contacts you, you run the same risk. Some act in good faith and some don’t. Your best bet is to decline to discuss the incident with them, and especially don’t discuss your health. “I feel much better now” may later become “The claimant told me she was all better, and then months later claimed she had pain and numbness on the site of the bite.” Please understand: the adjuster or investigator for the dog owner owes his loyalty to the insurance company, not you. His or her job is to save the company as much money as possible, not to “cradle you in good hands.” Get the insurance adjuster’s identifying information and give it to the lawyer.
It may seem just fine to take an early offer of $2500 as compensation for a dog bite, especially if the bite does not seem that bad, but do you know it won’t become infected and result in some permanent loss of function? An insurance company will demand a written release of liability in exchange for a money settlement. You will feel very bad later (and very angry) if you settle your rights for a small amount and then learn later you were entitled to twenty times as much.
Most probably, once you sign the release, they are off the hook no matter how bad the injury turns out to be. There is no hurry. Wait and see. This is particularly true of scarring. No plastic surgeon can reliably tell you how good or bad the scar will look until six months have passed. You may not know for 18 months (after three operations) that your medical treatment is done. Of course, this is precisely the reason that the insurance company will contact you and want to “throw money at you” three weeks after your injury. It is wise to give them a polite “No thank you. I want to see how my injuries heal.”
YOU DIDN’T WANT TO SUE. THE DOG ATTACK WAS SIX MONTHS AGO AND NOW YOU LEARN THAT THE TOTAL MEDICAL EXPENSES ARE LIKELY TO EXCEED $7,000 OR MORE. IS IT TOO LATE?
No. In many states, you have one year to file a lawsuit or to settle the claim. Please do not read that sentence and relax because you “have a year to take action.” That isn’t the case. Action needs to be taken immediately on a number of fronts. Filing a lawsuit is just not one of the immediate ones. The one exception to the year statute of limitations is in the rare case that the dog is owned by some governmental entity. Then legal action must be taken within six months by filing a special claim with the entity (city, county, state, district). Then, a lawsuit must still be filed within a year after the injury.
You really need a lawyer to advise you on which limitations apply to your factual situation. The information in this article is not intended as legal advice to allow you to press your own claim or lawsuit. There is way too much to know, and you could lose a lot by thinking that you are the equal of experienced insurance adjusters and lawyers.