If you or a loved one were injured by a dog bite, you may wonder how much it would cost to bring a lawsuit against the dog’s owner. We have two short answers.
The first answer is that it costs nothing to bring a lawsuit against the dog’s owner. Why? Because attorneys who handle dog bites work on contingency. Your initial consultation with a dog bite lawyer about the case costs nothing. If a lawyer determines you have a case, their fees are taken out of the settlement for the case that you receive. That is, it costs nothing to bring a lawsuit, because the only fees you’ll pay come out of any court award or settlement (a settlement is an agreement to pay you damages and to settle your case). If you don’t win a settlement or award, you pay nothing to your attorney.
But our second short answer is more complicated. You need to weigh the cost of a lawsuit against the cost of not pursuing the matter in court. How will you pay for the medical bills when they start to roll in? And what happens if you don’t take legal action—then the dog bites someone else, like a vulnerable child or elderly person?
Dog bites may sound simple, as if they would heal easily. However, dog bites can do serious harm. Bites from large dogs can cause traumatic injuries or even kill people. If any size of dog attacks or mauls a person, serious and life-threatening wounds can result. Dogs can knock people down flights of stairs, into traffic, or other potentially injurious places.
As a result, if you don’t bring a lawsuit, you may be on the hook for thousands of dollars in medical bills. These medical bills not only come out of your own pocket unjustly, since someone else was responsible for the injuries, but they can drive up your insurance premiums and costs at a later date—another unfair economic consequence of a dog bite.
In addition, if your injuries are serious enough that you had to take time off from work, you may have lost money. But bringing a suit can include requesting that wages lost from work be compensated. If your injuries have rendered you unable to work, or necessitated you getting a different type of job, your suit can include damages for a loss in earning power or future wage loss from missed work.
A lawsuit can also compensate you for pain and suffering, including mental and emotional pain.
Asking for compensation for medical bills, the effects the injuries had on your wages, and physical, mental, and emotional pain is nothing less than justice. With a lawsuit, you could be compensated justly for all of them. Without one, you may not be. It’s as simple as that.
California Dog Bite Law
In addition to these reasons to bring a dog bite lawsuit, the law concerning dog bites in California is complex. Here’s a brief review.
California has a strict liability law for dog bites. The owner is strictly liable (ie, responsible for damages stemming from the dog bite) if the injury stems from a bite and it occurred either in a public place or in a private place (such as a home) where the bitten person was lawfully entitled to be. The only exceptions are if the dog was being used for military or police work and was provoked into defending themselves.
As a result, you can bring a lawsuit under the strict liability law as long as your injury was caused by a bite and it occurred in a public or private place or where you were lawfully allowed to be. If you were asked into the dog owner’s home, for example, you are lawfully allowed to be there. Invited guests and people asked on to the property to do work, such as home repair or landscaping, as well as postal carries, are all in the lawfully allowed on property.
This is quite different from the laws of other states, which often include stipulations that the owner is only liable if the owner knew the dog had a tendency to bite or had bitten before. California’s law is more advantageous for the injured than for owners.
But the law also creates significant gaps. First, injuries other than biting may not be covered. Second, the dog owners may argue that you were neither in a public place or in a private place lawfully, and so argue that they are not liable for your injuries. Let’s review each of these in turn.
Injuries Other Than Bites
In some cases, courts have ruled that injuries other than bites still fall under the owner’s liability. But in other cases, injuries other than bites have not been subject to strict liability laws.
Yet we all know that dogs can injure people in ways other than biting. They can knock people over or cause them to fall off bicycles or down flights of stairs. Their weight, paws, and legs can all cause injury.
What recourse do you have if a dog injures you but does not bite?
In that case, your injury won’t be covered by California’s strict liability law concerning dog bites. But that does not mean you can’t be compensated for the injuries—not by any means.
What it does mean is that you can bring a personal injury suit alleging negligence on the owner’s part. In these cases, too, lawyers work on contingency. Any fee is paid out of any settlement you receive.
To bring a personal injury suit successfully, you will have to prove negligence on the part of the dog owner. Dog owners should use reasonable care to see that the dog does not harm people. If it can be claimed that they failed to use the care that a reasonably prudent person would have used, the owners could be found negligent—that is, in violation of the standards of ordinary care.
You could argue, for example, that a dog who chronically attacks children bicycling in front of the owner’s house needs to stay on a leash or behind a fence in the yard, and that the owner was negligent not to do this.
In addition, the strict liability law is only one California law governing dog injuries. The state also has a law concerning dogs who have bitten people who were not trespassing at least twice in the past (in separate incidents). If this has occurred, owners are responsible for taking reasonable steps to eliminate any risk of future attacks.
As a result, injured parties can bring a personal injury suit against someone whose dog has bitten someone on at least two occasions or the owner of a trained attack dog, who seriously injured someone with just one bite.
In these cases, the court might order the owner to take steps to remove the potential danger, including removing the dog or even ordering that the dog be destroyed.
Dogs Considered Potentially Dangerous
If either animal control or law enforcement suspects that a dog is a threat or is vicious, they can petition for a hearing to control the threat. This is different than a lawsuit, but does bear on the issue of when a dog could present a danger to other people.
When is a dog considered a potential threat? If one or more of the following has occurred.
- People have had to defend themselves from the dog’s aggressive behavior in at least two separate incidents during the last three years, while not on the owner’s property
- Someone has been bitten without provocation by the dog, resulting in a non-severe injury
- A domestic animal has been killed or injured twice in the last three years.
A dog is deemed vicious if one or more of the following occurs.
- It aggressively injured or caused the death of someone without provocation
- A court decided the dog was potentially dangerous and 1) the owner did not follow the legal conditions or 2) the dangerous behavior occurred again.
If a court has determined that the dog has a potential for danger or is vicious, the owner will be mandated to provide safety. Mandates may include keeping the dog on a leash, keeping it indoors, or keeping it in a fenced yard that will ensure children cannot get in. If these requirements are not met, the owner can be fined.
Potential Criminal Charges
If a dog injures or kills someone and the owner knew it had propensities the law terms “mischievous,” the owners can be subject to criminal charges.
Criminal charges are quite separate from strict liability in dog bites or personal injury lawsuits over dog injuries. Both these latter two types of cases are civil charges. They are tried in civil, not criminal, court. Civil cases request compensatory (monetary) damages for the harm done. Criminal cases inflict penalties on wrong-doers, on behalf of the state, including jail time, fines, and possible probation.
The criminal charges may be brought if the owner was aware that the dog had mischievous propensities but did not take action to keep it under control. If the person attacked by the dog is killed, the crime is a felony. If the person is injured, it can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony.
If an owner is charged with a crime because of a dog bite or attack, it does not affect your ability to bring a civil lawsuit for injuries. You can bring a lawsuit while a charge is pending, after it has been brought, while a criminal trial is going on, or after a verdict has been rendered. The criminal charges and the civil court proceedings have nothing to do with each other; they are entirely independent of one another.
What Defenses Might a Dog’s Owner Try to Use?
If you bring a suit against a dog’s owner, either for strict liability or alleging another type of attack, the dog’s owner might try to use several defenses to evade their liability.
The law states that the owner is liable if the attack takes place in public or on private property on whose premises you were lawfully entitled to be. The latter is often disputed. The owner may say that you were not lawfully on the premises—that you weren’t invited in or were trespassing, whether you in fact were or not. They can also try to argue that you voluntarily took a risk of injury by entering a domicile where a dog lived. Dog owners can also claim you provoked their animal.
Because of these possible defenses, it’s a prudent idea to talk to a lawyer about your case. Lawyers work with investigative teams who can interview eyewitnesses, talk to neighbors or other people who know the dog’s behavior, and otherwise pinpoint the circumstances of the attack.
Is There a Time Limit To Bring My Lawsuit?
Dog bite cases do have a time limit, called a statute of limitations, that determines the time frame in which the case needs to be brought. In California, the time limit is two years from the date of injury.
What Compensation Can I Receive From a Lawsuit?
The law allows plaintiffs (injured parties) to ask for specific types of compensation in a dog bite personal injury suit. They include:
- Medical bills – For doctor’s visits, hospitalization, surgery, prescription medication, physical therapy, clinic visits, and the like.
- Prospective medical bills – In Cases of catastrophic injury predicted medical bills expected to come from necessary future care.
- Wages lost from work – For required time off work required for your injuries to be treated or for recuperation.
- Prospective wages lost from work – If time off work for medical treatment or recuperation is expected, or if the injuries render you unable to work or to work at a reduced schedule.
- Pain and suffering – For physical, mental, or emotional pain, loss of companionship or consortium, or mental and emotional anguish.
If you have further questions, an experienced dog bite attorney in your area can help.