Proving Liability for a Dog Bite: How to Build a Case Against the Dog Owner

Determining liability for a dog attack is a key part of building a strong insurance claim. Here’s how to prove the dog owner should pay.

An estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur each year in the United States, including nearly 800,000 that required medical care.¹

If you or a child were bitten, you deserve fair compensation. To win an insurance claim, you must prove the dog owner is liable for your losses.

Here we detail how to build a strong personal injury claim against the dog’s owner.

How Dog Bite Law Affects Liability

A successful dog attack claim depends on proving the dog owner’s liability, meaning legal responsibility, for injuries to you or your child under your state’s laws.

When a dog owner fails to take reasonable action to prevent their dog from injuring others, the owner is negligent and responsible for the resulting damages. Your burden of proof will depend on the dog bite laws in your jurisdiction.

Most dog-bite statutes fall into one of two categories:

  • One-Bite: States with “one-bite” rules shield the dog owner from responsibility when their dog bites someone for the first time.
  • Strict Liability: Strict liability states hold the dog owner responsible for their dog’s actions, even if it’s the first time the dog hurt someone.

States, counties, cities, and even public housing authorities have a wide variety of laws governing dog registration, dangerous breeds, and leash and muzzle requirements.

Find your location on this table of State Dog Bite and Animal Control Laws.

Dangerous dog laws are not limited to regional governments. There is an increasing number of public housing authorities that ban or restrict dangerous dog breeds.

Getting Around One-Bite Dog Laws

Over the years, thanks to court cases and changing city and town ordinances, you might say the one-bite rule has lost its teeth. Today, the one-bite rule is a misleading term because the rule doesn’t automatically give the dog owner, or the dog owner’s insurance company, a free pass for the first reported dog bite.

It used to be that dog owners living in states with a one-bite rule would not have to pay for your damages if the attack on you was the first time their dog bit someone. The one-bite rule assumed that dogs with no history of violence would continue to be nice dogs, and their owner had no reason to believe their dog might bite anyone.

If you were bitten by a dog in a one-bite state, the dog’s owner can lose the one-bite protection from liability if you can prove the owner was negligent.

In other words, you can build a strong dog injury claim, despite the one-bite law, by gathering evidence proving the owner failed to take adequate steps to protect you from the dog.

One way to prove the owner was negligent is if your town has a leash law and the dog that bit you was running loose. Another kind of proof can be showing that the dog owner knew, or should have known of the dog’s tendency toward violence.

This kind of proof is usually backed up by evidence of complaints made by neighbors, or statements from someone else who was bitten or frightened by the dog.

Case Example: Work Around for One-Bite Laws

Karen and her six-year-old Doberman Pinscher named Rusty lived in a “One-bite” state. For the first five-plus years Karen owned Rusty, he was a sweet and obedient dog. But, during the past six months or so, his behavior changed.

Rusty began to nip and snap at anyone who tried to pet him. Karen was puzzled by Rusty’s behavior, but she still allowed Rusty to run free next to her when she jogged each morning.

One day as Karen was jogging along a public path, Rusty swerved away from Karen and jumped on Larry, who was also jogging that morning. Rusty viciously mauled Larry, leaving him with serious injuries.

Karen’s insurance company denied Larry’s claim, arguing that since Rusty had no history of biting, under the One-bite law, Karen was not liable for Larry’s damages. Through his attorney, Larry filed a lawsuit against Karen demanding full compensation for his injury expenses.

Larry’s attorney argued that the One-bite rule should be waived because Karen was negligent by letting Rusty run loose on a public jogging path when she knew he might bite someone. The attorney showed evidence that before the attack she had told friends and neighbors she was worried about the way Rusty was snapping at people.

The judge ruled that despite the state’s One-bite rule, Karen’s knowledge of Rusty’s recent behavior and her failure to take appropriate action to prevent her dog from biting another person was common law evidence of negligence.

Larry won his lawsuit against Karen, and her insurance company was forced to fully compensate Larry for his damages.

Strict Liability Helps a Dog Bite Case

When it comes to dog bites, “strict liability laws” means dog owners are absolutely responsible for any harm caused by their dog, even if the owner was not careless or negligent, and even if the dog had no prior history of aggressive behavior.

Building a dog bite claim in states with a strict liability statute is easier than in states with a one-bite rule, but you still need solid evidence to stand against the insurance company.

In strict liability states, it doesn’t matter if the dog has a history of violence or if the owner did everything possible to prevent his dog from hurting someone. With strict liability, if the dog injures a person, the dog owner is strictly liable.

There are three major exceptions to strict liability for dog owners:

  1. The injured person was trespassing on private property
  2. The dog bite victim is a veterinarian
  3. The victim was harassing, provoking, or hurting the dog

Shared Blame Can Tank Your Claim

Five states follow the contributory negligence rule. In these states, if a dog owner can prove you were partially to blame for provoking the dog, your claim can be denied.

At the other extreme, in states with pure comparative fault rules, you can be 99 percent to blame and still seek compensation for dog bite injuries.

Most states use modified comparative fault rules, meaning your injury claim can be denied if you are equally to blame or more to blame than the dog’s owner for the attack. If your claim is not denied, your settlement amount will be reduced according to your share of fault.

How to Build a Case Against the Dog Owner

Your safety should be your first priority after a dog bite incident. Do whatever you have to do to get away from the dog. Once you’re in a safe place, or the dog has been contained, assess your injuries and call for help.

Filing a liability claim against the dog owner’s insurance policy is almost the same process as for injuries suffered in slip and falls. Begin by gathering evidence to support your dog bite claim.

Get Evidence At the Scene of the Attack

What you do and say after a dog attack can have a big impact on your injury claim. Never say things like, “I must have startled the dog” or “My child shouldn’t have been running.” The insurance company won’t hesitate to try blaming you or your child for provoking the attack.

  1. Call 911: Tell the dispatcher that you (or your child) have been attacked by a dog. Ask for medical assistance. Let the dispatcher know if the dog is still running loose. Having a police report as evidence of the attack will help when negotiating your insurance claim.
  2. Seek Medical Attention: If paramedics don’t transport the bite victim directly to the hospital, seek immediate medical attention from your doctor, local emergency department, or urgent care center. For public safety, most states require medical providers to report dog bites.
  3. Alert Animal Control: If the 911 dispatcher or your medical care provider hasn’t already alerted animal control, be sure to report the attack to your local animal control department. The investigator will contact the dog’s owner for proof of current rabies vaccinations and other health issues.
  4. Get the Owner’s Information: Ask the dog owner directly (or the landlord or building owner) for their information. You’ll need the dog owner’s name, address, contact information, and the name of their insurance company. The same information may be in the police report or animal control incident report, but you likely won’t have access to those reports for a few days.
  5. Take Photographs: Take photographs and videos of the bite marks, the dog, and torn or bloody clothing. Photograph the area around the dog, including broken fence lines, holes dug under fences where the dog could escape, and the home or business where the dog lives. Pictures of a vicious dog baring its teeth and growling are powerful evidence. However, never place yourself in jeopardy while trying to take pictures of the dog.
  6. Get Witness Statements: Talk to people who witnessed the attack, and ask them to write down what they saw.

Gather Evidence Throughout Your Recovery

Continue to gather evidence throughout your medical treatment and recovery. Every bit of information you put together will help build a successful dog bite claim.

  1. More Witness Statements: Reach out to others who live near the dog owner’s residence. Neighbors often get fed up with a dog’s barking and aggressive behavior. They may agree to give you a statement detailing the negative experiences they’ve had with the dog.
  2. Preserve Evidence: Keep the bloody and torn clothing and other damaged items from the attack. Do not wash or alter the items. Put them in a clean box or bag labeled with the date of the attack.
  3. Take Good Notes: No one can write a more detailed description of the attack than you. Do it as soon as possible after the injury, while the details are fresh in your mind. Keep a journal of your treatment, including your pain and suffering during the attack and throughout recovery.
  4. Gather Medical Bills and Records: Request copies of your emergency room admitting chart, physician’s notes, test results, and any other hospital and medical records. Continue to gather documentation of all your follow-up treatments.
  5. Consult a Personal Injury Attorney: Even with solid evidence that the dog owner was negligent, insurance companies tend to offer lower settlements to claimants who are not represented by an attorney. An attorney can help if the owner of the dog doesn’t have homeowner’s insurance. There may be other sources of compensation to pursue.

Don’t walk away empty-handed. If a dog attack injured you or your child, you deserve fair compensation. It costs nothing to find out what an experienced dog bite lawyer thinks about your case.

Homeowner’s Insurance Dog Bite Exclusions

All homeowner’s policies exclude coverage for injuries to the insured and other household members.

Many homeowner’s insurance policies exclude dangerous dog breeds (when dog breed exclusions are allowed under state insurance laws). Others restrict coverage not based on breed, but instead on the dog’s history of attacks on others.

Some insurance companies refuse to provide coverage unless the insured homeowner puts in place strict safety measures to protect other people and domestic animals. Or, insurance companies may accept the first claim for a dog bite but deny any future claims if the dog inflicts more injuries.

Still, others will only provide coverage for dog-inflicted injuries based on an entirely separate pet liability policy.

As part of their underwriting practice, insurance companies analyze risk factors for individual dog breeds known for dangerous propensities.

When insurance companies decide to provide coverage, they do it under the personal liability section of the homeowner’s policy. Depending on the policy and the premium the insured pays, the coverage limit will normally be anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000.

Similar liability coverage may be available if the dog’s owner is not a property owner, but carries a renter’s insurance policy or other liability insurance.

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>