Man’s best friend doesn’t always live up to the title – an average 4.7 million people throughout the nation suffer a dog bite each year. The Insurance Information Institute reports that dog bites account for about 25% of all homeowners’ insurance liability claims.
If you are the victim of a dog bite and wish to pursue a claim against the dog owner, you will need to determine whether your state imposes “strict liability” on dog owners. If so, you may only need to prove that the dog injured you. If your state does not have a strict liability law, you may need to show that your neighbor knew or should have know of the dog’s vicious propensities before it attacked you.
In Colorado, a dog owner is allowed one “free bite,” until the dog bites the first time, the pet owner can argue lack of knowledge of the dander. The criminal statute regarding the ownership of dangerous dogs opens the door for civil claims of negligence per se for injuries caused by dogs. The statute defines a “dangerous dog” as one that (1) has previously inflicted injury or death on a person or domestic animal, (2) has demonstrated tendencies which would lead a reasonable person to believe that the dog may inflict injury or death to a person or domestic animal or (3) has engaged in or been trained for animal fighting [CRS § 18-9-204.5(2)(b)(I)-(III)].
Owners of dangerous dogs in Colorado are subject to criminal charges, ranging from Class 3 misdemeanors to Class 5 felonies, for injuries to, or death of, any person or domestic animal caused by the dangerous dog [CRS § 18-9-204.5(3)(b)-(e)]. Additionally, owners may be required to pay restitution in an amount equal to the fair market value of the domestic animal prior to the injury or death, plus any reasonable medical expenses incurred as a result of the dangerous dog’s activities [CRS § 18-9-204.5(3)(e)].
This statute includes logic similar to the “one bite rule” in that subsequent violations of this statute result in stiffer charges. Until a dog has actually injured a person or domestic animal, the dog may not fall within the definition of a “dangerous dog,” as its owner can argue he or she had no evidence that the dog would inflict injury or death.
In most cases, if you are asked into a house (or onto property) to perform work for someone, the person who owns the property has a legal responsibility to take reasonable efforts to protect you from injury. Thus, if the person has a pet, the person might be responsible for keeping the pet away from you, or at least warning you of the presence of the animal. Note that you may also have a workers’ compensation claim against your employer.
If a dog owner violates a leash law, and her dog attacks someone, many courts will hold that this fact alone is enough to conclude the owner was negligent, and that the injured person is entitled to compensation from the dog owner.
A person may be imprisoned for keeping a vicious animal. There have been numerous instances where people have been criminally convicted for knowingly owning dangerous animals. In some instances, owners have been found guilty of murder when an animal’s attack killed another person. Sentences have ranged from severe fines to significant jail time.
The most notorious case may be the couple whose dog killed a San Francisco woman as she was unlocking her apartment. Diane Whipple was mauled by a huge, unmuzzled dog that Knoller and her husband kept in their San Francisco apartment. Police said the criminal case against dog owners Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, who are both attorneys, was bolstered by at least three earlier attacks attributed to their two dogs, Hera and Bane. A state appeals court reinstated Marjorie Knoller’s murder conviction for the death of Whipple, who was killed in the hallway of her Pacific Heights building Jan. 26, 2001. The court voted 3-0 to uphold the involuntary manslaughter conviction of Knoller’s husband, Robert Noel, who had left the dogs in his wife’s care the day of the attack but was not present when Whipple was killed.
If your pet is injured or killed by another animal, you may be entitled to receive “compensatory” damages. The amount may include the purchase price of a similar pet, registration of a purebred animal, licensing, shots, and training costs. Additionally, if you spent additional money on your pet — other than for normal veterinary bills — you should be compensated for such sums. In some cases, you may be able to receive compensation for mental anguish, loss of the companionship of the pet, and even punitive damages. To learn more about this developing area of law visit the NABR Animal Law Section.