A dog owner can often be held legally and financially responsible if their dog bites or otherwise causes injury to a person. Sometimes, the two sides (dog owner and injured person) can reach a fair settlement without resorting to the court process. But when injuries are serious and/or the dog owner (or the dog owner's insurance company, if a liability policy provides coverage) refuses to negotiate, the injured person may need to escalate things by filing a personal injury lawsuit over the matter. Let's look at some of the legal and practical issues related to a dog owner's liability for injuries caused by their animal, and some key questions to consider if you're thinking about making a dog bite injury claim.
A dog owner can be held financially responsible when his or her dog's behavior leads to injuries or property damage, but the extent of the liability and what will ultimately need to be proven in court varies from state to state.
In some states, the dog owner is subject to strict liability, meaning that fault on the part of the dog owner does not need to be established if the dog bites someone. In these states, a few questions usually need to be resolved before the dog owner will be liable—such as whether the person who was bitten was lawfully on the property where the bite occurred, and whether he or she did anything to provoke the dog.
Other states follow a "one bite" or negligence-based rule, where the focus is on whether the owner knew or should have known that the dog might bite, and whether the owner took necessary precautions based on that knowledge. Get the details on "one bite" and strict liability rules in dog bite cases.
The dog's owner may very well be liable for your injuries or other damages, but from a practical standpoint, you need to ask yourself whether pursuing a legal remedy will really be worth the time, money, and effort. If you were nipped on the hand and hand a puncture wound treated at the ER, you might want to think twice about making a claim. On the other hand, if you've suffered significant injuries or other losses—a dog attack costs you thousands of dollars in livestock, for example—then filing a lawsuit or otherwise pursuing a remedy is probably a good idea.
One final note on injury claims and preservation of your legal options: Your state has a personal injury statute of limitations that sets a limit on the amount of time an injured person can wait before filing their case in the state’s civil court system. If you’re thinking about filing a lawsuit over dog bite injuries, you need to pay attention to this deadline. Even if you're confident you'll receive a dog bite injury settlement, you always want to have the option of taking the matter to court, even if it's only for added leverage at the negotiation table. If you have questions about the lawsuit filing deadline, the rules for dog owner liability in your state, or anything else, it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced personal injury attorney.