More than 50 percent of dog bite victims are children younger than 12. Dog bites cause more child emergency room visits than any other youth activity, surpassing bone fractures, burns, and domestic violence. As a direct result of the ever-increasing number of dogs biting children, the number of personal injury claims and dog bite lawsuits continues to rise exponentially.
Half of all dog bites to children occur in the family home or in the child’s immediate neighborhood. Child victims of dog bites often require stitches, painful rabies shots, and in some cases, even plastic surgery. Most dog bites are to a child’s head and neck area.
Children are likely to live with the physical and mental trauma from dog bites for many years, often into adulthood. In some cases, child victims may suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the worst cases, a dog attack can be fatal.
Usually, dog attacks on children require the advice and counsel of an experienced personal injury attorney. Attorneys can do so much more than you can on your own. They can negotiate substantial settlements with insurance companies, take depositions of witnesses, and subpoena records. Sometimes, an attorney merely filing a dog bite lawsuit can prompt a quick settlement.
What to do if your child is hurt in a dog attack:
1. Call 911.
Your first thoughts, of course, are your child’s safety and wellbeing. From a legal perspective, you have a duty to mitigate (lessen) your child’s damages. Even if your child’s injuries appear minor, it’s still very important to seek medical treatment. A small scratch can lead to serious infections, rabies, and various diseases.
2. Identify the dog’s owner and her insurance company.
Because most dog attacks on children occur in the child’s immediate neighborhood, it should be relatively easy to find the dog owner’s name. Make sure the owner knows his or her dog attacked your child. Further explain, because of the attack, your child sustained injuries serious enough to require emergency room treatment. Ask the neighbor for the name, policy number, and contact information of her homeowners insurance company.
3. Contact your local animal control department.
It’s important to file a complaint with your local municipality’s animal control department for two reasons. The first is to ensure the city takes appropriate measures to quarantine the animal or otherwise protect the public from further attacks.
The second is to help verify the date, time, and nature of the dog bite. This is especially important when pursuing a personal injury claim against the dog owner. Your attorney can use a report made to the animal control department as evidence of the dog owner’s negligence.
4. Gather evidence.
Photographs and video footage of the scene of the attack make valuable evidence. Items such as holes in your neighbor’s fence, blood on the ground, your child’s tattered clothes, and if possible, even a photograph or video of the dog are important. Photograph your child’s injuries at the time of the incident and a day or two afterwards.
Your child’s tattered and bloodied clothing is very strong evidence. An insurance company knows if it doesn’t settle the claim, a jury might see your child’s bloodied and torn clothes. That’s very emotional testimony. Don’t wash the clothes or attempt to remove blood stains. Instead, place them in a bag for safe keeping. Label the bag with the time and date of the attack.
Witness statements, especially from Good Samaritans, can be crucial evidence. Good Samaritan witnesses have no personal or financial interest in the outcome of your child’s claim. Insurance companies and jurors take their statements seriously. Move quickly though. Ask your witnesses to write down what they saw using any paper available. Don’t concern yourself about notaries or sworn affidavits.
Make sure your witnesses explain the attack in detail. If true, it’s very important they make clear your child didn’t taunt or otherwise provoke the dog. Have your witnesses sign and date their statements at the bottom of each page.
Affirmative Defense of Provocation: Children vs. Adults
Some dog attacks are a result of provocation. Provocation comes in the form of taunting, pulling on the dog’s tail, hitting the dog with an object, or other forms of adversarial, aggressive behavior. When it comes to children, a dog owner’s statement that the child provoked the dog is an affirmative defense (introducing new facts).
Sometimes, a legitimate affirmative defense is enough to overcome a victim’s claim of dog owner negligence and liability. In cases of younger children though, the affirmative defense of provocation is of lesser value to the dog owner.
The courts have traditionally said children, especially younger children, are less likely to form the intent to provoke a dog. Most young children who unintentionally provoke a dog do it while playing around. This can be pulling the dog’s tail, running away from it, jumping on it, and more. Young children can’t understand their unintended provocation may result in an attack on them.
Dog and child safety
Educating dog owners and parents of small children about dog and child safety is of paramount importance. Doing so can mean the difference between a peaceful interaction between a child and dog, and a life-threatening injury. To help protect children from dog bites, the Centers for Disease Control have set out preventative safety measures for children and dogs.
Dog and child safety measures include:
- Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
- Don’t run away from an unfamiliar dog or scream at it.
- Remain motionless and still when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
- If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still.
- Children shouldn’t play with a dog unless there’s adult supervision.
- Avoid direct eye contact with an unknown dog.
- Do not disturb a dog that’s sleeping, eating, or caring for her puppies.
- Immediately report to your local animal control center any stray dogs or dogs exhibiting unusual behavior.
Dog Owner Negligence and Liability
Every dog owner has a legal duty of care (obligation) to do everything reasonably possible to prevent his dog from biting others. The dog owner’s duty of care is much higher with children than adults. Because children can’t comprehend the danger a dog presents, the dog owner must remain especially careful to make sure his dog is not left unsupervised around a vulnerable child.
Parents have a reciprocating duty to do all they can to ensure their children aren’t near an aggressive dog that may bite. Unfortunately, this dual duty provides the basis for dog bite lawsuits.
Some states have a one-bite law that forgives or excuses from liability dog owners whose dogs haven’t previously shown a tendency for violence – but only for the first time the dog bites someone. Even in so called one-bite states, if it’s decided the dog owner was negligent, he’ll be held liable for injuries caused by his dog.
In strict liability states, a dog owner doesn’t have the luxury of being exempt from liability for his dog’s first bite. In these states, when a dog owner’s actions or omissions results in a dog attack and someone is injured, the owner is deemed negligent and therefore liable for the victim’s damages.
Child vs. Adult Damages
In matters of law, the word “damages” refers to the aftereffects an injury has on its victim. Often, damages can include a victim’s medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, bandages, etc., lost wages, and pain and suffering. Damages for child victims are often different from those of adult victims. While an adult may be able to withstand a similar injury, a child may have a much tougher time.
For example, because of a dog bite, a child may have a scar to the face, neck, arm, or other prominent part of his or her body. The scar may last a lifetime and subject the child to intolerant and abusive classmates, problems in social settings, and isolation from friends and family.
The scar may lower the child’s self-esteem or otherwise cause emotional distress that can last a lifetime. Child victims of dog bites may require long-term mental health counseling. They may have to go through a series of painful shots and medications with side effects.
Another form of damages the court can assess against a negligent dog owner, especially in cases of dog bites on vulnerable children, is punitive damages. In a dog bite lawsuit, if a jury decided the dog owner’s negligence was so severe it showed a reckless disregard for safety, the court may award punitive damages in an amount substantially higher than the actual damages proved during the trial.
Depending on the circumstances of the attack and nature of the dog owner’s negligence, punitive damages can reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is especially true when a company with substantial assets owns the dog, such as a business property’s guard dog. It’s the court’s way of clearly telling dog owners that gross negligence in failing to protect children from attacks will mean substantial penalties.
Homeowners Insurance Coverage
The great majority of dog bites to children occur at home or in a neighborhood. Because most homeowners carry insurance, the issue of damages for a child’s dog bite injuries will be covered under one of two sections of the homeowner’s policy.
Under the medical payments, or med-pay, sections, the insurance company automatically pays out up to $1,000 for a child victim’s medical bills. The child’s parents won’t have to prove the dog/homeowner was negligent. But that’s only $1,000 (more if the homeowner paid for higher coverage limits).
If the damages exceed $1,000, the child’s parents have to pursue their injury claim under the personal liability section of the policy. Typically, the coverage provided under personal liability is anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000.
To succeed in a negligence claim under the personal liability section, the child’s attorney has to prove the dog owner was negligent. He can normally do this with the evidence you gathered at the time of the dog bite, his own investigation, and through other pretrial discovery methods.
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