Settlement of a Dog Bite Injury Claim

Find out 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 dog bite settlement will be based on two things: what the parties to the lawsuit estimate a jury would ultimately give the victim/plaintiff after a trial, and whether the dog owner/defendant feels that he or she has a chance of being found liable.

This article discusses the factors to consider in making that estimate, as well as what might prevent a dog bite case from settling.

Defendant Must Feel There is Some Chance of Losing the Case

For a defendant to settle at all, there must be some risk of losing the case at trial. This means that the circumstances surrounding the dog bite satisfy the legal requirements in the state's "dog bite" statute or the state's case law.

If the state has a strict dog bite statute, it will be relatively easy to assess whether the owner has violated the statute and whether he or she will be found liable. 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. (See this chart for the law in each state).

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 quite difficult for one main reason: 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 wages, are easier to calculate and easier to predict for settlement purposes. Although a jury has discretion, if they find the defendant liable, they will typically base "concrete" damages like medical bills on the amount the plaintiff demonstrates he or she has paid and/or will continue to pay. In negotiating a settlement, the parties are likely to have similar predictions and less room for disagreement on these kinds of damages.

For subjective, less concrete damages like "pain and suffering," predictions are at best an educated guess based 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.

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 generate some kind of 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.

How the Injury Impacts the Particular Plaintiff

The nature of the injury or injuries suffered by the plaintiff are of course key. What is also key, however, is how those injuries affect a particular plaintiff. For example, let's say the plaintiff is bitten in his wrist and is left with permanent damage. If the plaintiff was an avid golfer, but is no longer able to play, his damages based on "loss of quality of life" will likely be higher in the eyes of a jury than a similarly injured plaintiff who rarely makes it out of the house.

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

Where the plaintiff's suit 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 want to 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 that 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. It is important for a plaintiff to verify that his or her attorney does not have that kind of record.

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