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Injuries caused by pets...who's responsible?

May 2019
Unfortunately, it’s not unusual for our law office to receive a phone call from an individual who has been injured by a dog (or other domestic pet). The individual is normally looking to find out if he or she has recourse against the pet owner for their injuries.

Meanwhile, pet owners have occasionally called and inquired as to their responsibility for injuries caused by their pet. What follows is a general overview of this area of law. It is not intended to address each and every specific situation.

In imposing legal responsibility (i.e. liability) on a pet owner for injuries to persons harmed by a pet, most states require the injured individual prove the pet owner was aware – or had reason to be aware – the pet had “dangerous” or “vicious” propensities.

The injured person must also prove the pet owner did not take the appropriate precautions to prevent the pet from causing injury. In the case of a dog, a prior history of biting, snarling or pushing persons to the ground may suffice to meet this requirement.

It’s important to note this “awareness” requirement may be broadened in some jurisdictions by specific statutes or ordinances, which may impose even stricter responsibility on owners who possess certain specific species or breeds of animals.

Under the general rule, it is clear not every injury caused by a bite, scratch or push by a pet results in compensable liability against the owner. It falls upon the victim (or victim’s attorney) to prove the animal’s propensity to be a danger to others.

This raises the question of how can this be accomplished? It is important for the injured party to start the investigation and make the claim early on. Every state has certain strict time constraints – called a “Statute of Limitation” – within which a legal action must be brought, or the right to do so is lost.

What to Do When Injured By a Pet?

In the case of a dog bite, the injured individual should immediately report the incident to Animal Control and local law enforcement. Those two entities should then aid in identifying the owner and ascertaining if the animal was properly vaccinated for rabies.

The individual will also obviously want to seek prompt medical attention for their injuries. If there is a desire to pursue a case against the owner, the dog’s vicious propensity must be established. This can be done by reporting the incident to Animal Control and local law enforcement. Each of these entities may have information about prior incidents, which can be obtained through a properly made request pursuant to the State and Federal Freedom of Information Laws (FOIL).

The next step is to identify any witnesses to the attack, or to prior attacks or aggressive behavior. Likely witnesses would include neighbors, postal delivery persons, yard workers, or anyone else who may have had contact with the animal.

It is also important to find out if any complaints had been made to a homeowners or co-op/condo association; or whether the owner took any measures or precautions to prevent an attack.

You will also want to find out whether any “Beware of Dog” signs were on the property; and ascertain whether photos were taken of the injuries along with the property where the animal resides (this may show evidence of dog chains not in use, or bite marks and scratches on fences).

If properly investigated to provide the proof required, dog bite victims may be entitled to reasonable compensation for their physical injuries, medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

If you have any questions about the matters discussed in this article, please contact your Legal Service Plan’s National Legal Office at 800-832-5182.