Most personal injury cases settle, and dog-bite claims are no exception. But how does the settlement process work, and what kind of result can you reasonably expect for your dog-bite insurance claim or lawsuit? In the sections that follow we'll explain:
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, from the dog owner's perspective, this means the circumstances of the underlying incident look like they might satisfy the state's legal requirements for holding a dog owner liable for injuries.
If the state has a "strict liability" dog-bite statute, it may be relatively easy to assess whether the dog owner can be found at fault under that statute. If the state follows a "one-bite" or negligence-based rule, or if the requirements for strict liability don't seem to be met in a strict lability state—things can get a little more complicated. Learn more about strict liability, one-bite, and other dog-bite injury laws.
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 dog owner will be inclined to settle for some amount, particularly if the dog owner's insurance company is involved.
Aside from the defendant dog owner's liability, the other key factor is the plaintiff's losses stemming from the dog-bite incident, and how much he or she would stand to recover in compensation ("damages") if the case were to go all the way to trial.
Estimating 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 dog owner must pay the injured plaintiff. Some damages, like medical bills and lost income, are easier to calculate for settlement purposes. In negotiating a personal injury settlement, the parties are likely to have similar assessments—and less room for disagreement—on these kinds of damages.
But when it comes to more 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 factors like physical disfigurement or long-term effects, 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 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 claimant's pain and suffering damages are potentially high, the defendant (especially an insurance company) will settle for a higher amount than they otherwise might.
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.
While perhaps an unfair generalization, it's true that juries in rural areas tend to be more conservative when awarding damages, compare with juries in larger cities. It's also possible that the jury comes from an area with residents who are 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 it looks like a jury is going to be more likely to sympathize with the plaintiff (and/or punish the defendant dog owner), a higher settlement becomes more likely.
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.