Dog-on-Dog Aggression and Liability for Injuries & Property Damage

Aggressive dogs are dangerous. When another dog decides to attack you or your dog, there’s often little you can do about it. Dog-on-dog aggression is a common occurrence. Each year in the United States, dog owners spend millions of dollars in medical and veterinary bills and suffer millions more in property losses, all because of aggressive dogs with violent tendencies.

Dog Owners’ Legal Duty of Care

Dog owners have a legal “duty of care” (obligation) to ensure their dogs won’t injure another person or damage personal property. As much as we like to consider our dogs something more than just property, under the law they are just that. Cats and other domesticated animals are also personal property. Cat and dog fights fall under the same negligence rules.

While some states have a one-bite exception to dog attacks, all states have a common law prohibition against dog owner negligence. When, as a result of dog owner negligence, a dog causes personal injuries to another person or his dog (property damage), the negligent dog owner has breached his duty of care. That breach makes him liable for the victim’s and his dog’s injuries and resulting damages.

Damages can include the victim’s own medical bills, lost wages, and her out-of-pocket expenses for medications, torn clothing, and other personal property damaged during a dog attack. In cases of dog-on-dog aggression, damages can also include reimbursement for veterinary bills, dog medications, and even kennel fees while the dog is recovering.

In cases of fatal dog attacks, damages can extend to include the replacement cost of a deceased dog. Unfortunately, liability does not extend to the mental anguish or emotional distress a dog owner suffers due to their dog’s injury or death.

Liability: Who’s at fault?

One of the challenges to succeeding in a claim for injuries to yourself, your dog, or even your cat is proving another dog initiated the attack. Dog-on-dog aggression is sometimes difficult to sort out, especially when a dog attack erupts suddenly, seemingly without provocation. This often occurs when two dogs pass one another closely. In a split second, they can be at each other’s throats.

Determining which dog first lunged at the other often comes down to one dog owner’s word against the other. But if you take a closer look at the underlying issues, even in cases of leashed dogs, you may find the seeds of a legal action to recover your damages.

Example: Biten when trying to separate two dogs

You’re walking your dog when your neighbor passes by with her dog. Both animals are on leashes. They’ve passed each other a hundred times before without incident. For some reason known only to the dogs, this day is different. In an instant, both dogs are violently attacking each other. You’re shocked. Worse, when you reach down to try to separate the dogs, your neighbor’s dog bites you.

When you finally separate the dogs, you realize your dog took the worst of it. She’s bleeding profusely and yelping in pain. Your clothes are torn, and your hands have several bites from the neighbor’s dog.

This scenario presents a difficult challenge. It’s unlikely your neighbor is going to agree to pay your medical bills, costs of replacing your tattered clothing, or your dog’s veterinary bills. If you’re going to have any chance of succeeding in an insurance claim or lawsuit against your neighbor, you must understand some of the legal issues related to dog-on-dog aggression and injury compensation.

What to Look For…

Let’s say your dog is a Miniature Poodle or other small dog. Your neighbor’s dog is a German Shepherd. You might use as a partial basis of your claim a comparison of the size, weight, and possible designation of your neighbor’s dog as one of a dangerous breed.

Also, you might want to ask around to see if your other neighbors have had any problems with the same dog. Did he bite other neighbors or their children? How about other dogs? Has your city’s animal control center issued citations or warnings to your neighbor concerning the violent tendencies of her dog?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you may have the basis of a legitimate claim for personal injury and property damage.

Negligence and resulting liability of a dog owner who fails to leash or otherwise contain his dog to prevent harm to others is much easier to prove. Failing to protect others from attacks by one’s uncontained dog is, in and of itself, negligent.

Homeowners Insurance

Fortunately, injuries and property damage caused by dogs is normally covered under the dog owner’s homeowners insurance policy. This is true even when the policyholder’s dog causes injuries or property damage away from the owner’s home.

Because of the ever-increasing number of personal injury claims and lawsuits, more insurance companies are beginning to exclude coverage for certain so-called dangerous breeds. When the homeowner’s policy excludes a dog, the dog owner himself may become personally liable for any damage the dog causes.

Evidence: Proving Your Claim

Photographs and video footage

When considering a personal injury or property damage claim (for injuries to your dog), photographs and video footage of the attack and its aftermath are powerful evidence. If you have a digital camera, take it out to photograph and video your dog’s injuries.

Take close-ups of gashes, blood, cuts, and more. If possible, capture the other dog’s image as well. Take photographs of your injuries and any tattered or bloodied clothing. Be sure to turn on the date and time stamp function to eliminate any question about when the attack happened.

Witness statements

Witnesses to the actual event as well as witnesses to previous attacks by the aggressive dog are quite helpful. This is especially true in cases when it’s your word against the other dog owner’s. Don’t hesitate to ask witnesses for their names and contact information. If there’s time, take out any paper you can find and ask the witnesses to write down what they saw, especially focusing on which dog initiated the attack.

Knock on your neighbors’ doors. See if you can find others who have suffered personal attacks or attacks on their dog or cat by the same aggressive dog. The more witnesses you have supporting your assertion the dog had violent tendencies, the stronger your claim becomes.

Costs and records

You need copies of medical and veterinary bills and records, receipts for medications, and replacement costs for torn clothes or other personal property like jewelry, computers or cell phones damaged during the attack. If you were hurt and had to miss work, ask your employer for a written letter verifying the dates and times you were absent and the amount of wages you lost as a result.

Unfortunately, insurance companies will not pay wages lost while taking your dog to the veterinarian or while caring for your dog at home. They also dislike paying the replacement cost of a dog or cat killed by their insured’s dog. Sometimes, they’ll only pay the replacement cost of a dog killed by their insured’s dog if the insured had a special endorsement in the policy, or the insured purchased comprehensive coverage.

Small Claims Court

In some cases, you just can’t get fair compensation from the dog owner or his insurance company. When this occurs, you can avail yourself of your local small claims court. Small claims courts vary from state to state. Filing a small claims lawsuit is great way to get satisfaction. Unresponsive, aggressive dog owners and their insurance companies quickly snap to attention when the insured receives a summons to appear in court.

While not common, a judge, especially a dog lover, may decide to order the aggressive dog’s owner to pay your lost wages for the time you had to stay home caring for your dog. Judges have great latitude in deciding what’s fair and what’s not – and insurance companies know it.

To file a small claims lawsuit is relatively simple. There’s usually a single page form to fill out. On it, you can hand write the facts of your case against the dog owner and the amount you’re suing for. There’s usually a small filing fee of less than $100. If you succeed in your case, the defendant will be ordered to reimburse you.

Before filing your suit, make sure you have all your evidence in order. Place your witnesses on notice you may call them to testify.

Insurance companies must provide legal representation to their insured in legitimate conflicts arising out of coverage disputes. It’s surprising to see how many insurance companies quickly pay denied claims when someone files a lawsuit. Insurance companies don’t want to spend money on attorneys, especially when there’s a reasonable probability they may lose.

Comparative and Contributory Negligence

There are four states, and the District of Columbia, that follow the contributory negligence rule. In these states, if you contributed to your own injury or to your own property damage, you receive nothing. Insurance companies and the courts follow this very strict rule. If a dog owner can prove you were partially to blame for your dog’s injuries, you’ll lose your claim.

The remaining states follow one of two forms of the comparative negligence rule. In these states, the courts compare the amount you contributed to your own injury or property damage to the aggressive dog owner’s negligence. The court diminishes your settlement award proportionate to the amount they believe you caused your own injuries or property damage.

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