Settlement of a Dog Bite Injury Claim

What goes into settling a dog bite injury claim, and what elements affect the potential value of the case?

Every dog bite case is different, but generally speaking, a personal injury settlement arising from a dog bite will be based on what the parties estimate a jury would ultimately award the victim, and whether there's a good chance the dog owner will be found liable. Let's dig a little deeper.

The Defendant Must Be Motivated to Settle

In personal injury cases, in order for the defendant to settle at all, there must be some motivating factor, like the risk of losing the case at trial. In a dog bite case, this means the circumstances look like they might satisfy the legal requirements for holding an animal owner liable under state law.

If the state has a strict dog bite statute, it will be relatively easy to assess whether the owner has violated the statute. If the state has a less strict statute, or no statute at all, the parties will need to guess at whether the plaintiff will be able to convince a jury of, for example, whether the owner knew the dog had a tendency to bite. Learn more about dog owner liability rules for bites and other injuries.

If potential damages are high, it is relatively clear that the plaintiff was bit by the owner's dog, and there are no clear defenses, the defendant will be inclined to settle for some amount, particularly if the defendant's insurance company is defending the lawsuit.

The Plaintiff Must Have Suffered Real Damages

Aside from the defendant's liability, the other big question is the plaintiff's losses stemming from the dog bite incident, and how much the plaintiff would recover in damages. Estimating the potential recovery with any degree of accuracy is difficult because at trial, it will most likely be a jury that ultimately decides just how much money the defendant must pay the injured plaintiff.

Some damages, like medical bills and lost income, are easier to calculate for settlement purposes. In negotiating a settlement, the parties are likely to have similar predictions and less room for disagreement on these kinds of damages.

For subjective losses like "pain and suffering," predictions are at best an educated guess based in part on awards in similar dog bite cases in the past. Because every case and every jury is different, even the best analysis will still only predict pain and suffering damages within a broad range.

The nature and extent of the plaintiff's injuries are key. A dog bite involving puncture wounds, but no other complications or special circumstances, will not give a plaintiff much leverage in settlement negotiations when it comes to pain and suffering damages.

In cases involving serious injuries and issues like physical disfigurement, the "subjective" damages are potentially very high, and that much harder to pin down. That opens the possibility of the plaintiff and defendant's attorneys putting very different values on the case and making settlement that much more complicated. But it also makes a much higher settlement more likely, even in cases where liability is not entirely clear—the realistic possibility of high damages at trial is enough to spur a settlement in most cases.

If liability is relatively clear, and the pain and suffering damages are potentially high, the defendant (especially an insurance company) will settle for a higher amount than they otherwise might.

Other Factors: Where Suit is Filed, and Plaintiff's Attorney

Where the plaintiff's personal injury lawsuit was filed is important because residents of that particular county will make up the jury pool. Suit is typically filed in the county where the injury occurred, or where the defendant resides.

With some exceptions, it is generally true that juries in rural areas award more conservative damages than do juries in urban areas. It is also possible that the jury comes from an area with residents more or less sensitive to dog bite injuries, such as a county with recent, well-publicized dog attacks or a large number of vicious dogs kept as pets.

If a jury is more likely to sympathize with the plaintiff and punish the defendant, the plaintiff should be able to get the defendant to agree to a higher settlement number.

Finally, if a plaintiff's attorney has a track record of accepting low settlements and never going to trial, the defendant will place a lower value on the case. This means the defendant (particularly an insurance company) will be more willing to hold fast at a low settlement offer knowing that the plaintiff's attorney would rather settle than actually conduct a trial. That's one reason it's so important to find a personal injury lawyer who is right for you and your case.

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