Proving Negligence After A Dog Bite

Last updated on: September 20, 2022

Around 40 percent of all households in the United States have a pet dog, with 15 percent owning more than one dog. We might think of dogs as man’s best friend, but these companions are not always friendly: More than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the United States each year.

It is the dog owner’s responsibility to ensure that his or her dog does not attack people, but what happens after a dog bite can vary based on different state laws. If you or a loved one has been bitten by a dog, speak with an attorney at Zinda Law Group. Call 888-541-6283 for your free case evaluation today.

The Legal Responsibility Of Dog Owners

According to the law in every state, dog owners must stop their pets from harming people and property. If someone’s dog hurt you, you could pursue a civil claim against the dog owner. A civil claim involves compensation for your medical bills, missed wages from time off work, pain and suffering, and other damages.

Often, the dog owner’s liability insurance can cover your damages from a dog bite, but there are exceptions for dogs that have a history of biting or for certain breeds of dogs. Coverage can vary greatly across policies.

Theory Of Tort Liability In Animal Cases

Pets are the property of pet owners, so pet owners must take responsibility for the damage that their pets cause. While you can typically hold the pet owner liable when a dog bites you, different legal routes to recovery might require you to prove different elements.

For example, depending on your state’s laws, you can pursue a civil claim through a statute, a negligence claim, or through the one-bite rule. In some cases, you could pursue criminal charges against the dog owner. Criminal charges might be appropriate if the dog owner illegally kept dangerous dogs or was reckless or intentional in failing to restrain their dogs.

Did Negligence Cause the Injury?

One way you can seek legal recovery after a dog bite is to allege that the dog owner was negligent. Negligence is the claim made in most general personal injury cases.

There is also a negligence claim available to those injured by a dog bite. An injured person must prove the following four things (legally known as “elements”) to prove that a person was negligent in the handling of an animal:

  • The person owned or was in possession of the animal.
  • The person owed a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent the animal from injuring someone.
  • The person breached his or her duty.
  • The person’s breach of the duty proximately (see below for explanation) caused a person’s injury. This claim differs from a claim alleging strict liability (see below), because an injured person does not need to prove that an animal was vicious or dangerous when suing for negligent handling.

Best Way To Prove A Person’s Negligence

As long as you are able to show those four elements of negligence, you can file your claim against the owner of the dog that bit you. However, you will need evidence to back up your claim to win your case. Some typical examples of dog bite claims include violating local or state ordinances for leashing the dog or not securing the dog on your property.

Proving Elements Of Negligence In A Dog Bite Case

1. Who owned or possessed the animal. 

  • The first element is fairly straightforward in most cases, because it is usually easy to prove who owned or possessed a dog. However, it is important to identify all people who owned or possessed the dog to locate all available insurance entities.

2. Whether the owner or possessor of the animal owed a duty of care to the animal that injured the victim.

  • The second element depends on the facts of the case. For example, in the typical animal attack case, a dog owned or possessed by a homeowner bites and injures someone. In that situation, the homeowner owes a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent his or her animals from injuring people.
  • If the defendant is a landlord, the duty is different. In common areas (such as around a pool at an apartment complex), a landlord owes a duty to an injured person if the landlord: (1) had actual or imputed knowledge that a dog was in a common area; and (2) actually knew that the animal had vicious propensities.
  • If the animal attack occurred in the actual leased premises (such as in an apartment), the landlord owes a duty to a non-tenant if the landlord: (1) actually knew that the animal was on the leased premises; (2) actually knew that the animal had vicious propensities; and (3) was able to control the premises. Lastly, if a person is injured by livestock, the law can differ by county.

3. An owner or possessor breached the duty of care. 

  • The third element can occur in a number of very obvious ways. A person might walk a dog without a leash, tether a dog in a front yard, or let an animal roam free. Alternatively, a person might not take action to stop a dog attack after it has begun or fails to maintain a fence or pen, thereby allowing an animal to escape and harm someone.

 4. Proximate cause of injury.

  • The fourth and last element is simpler to understand than it sounds. Proximate cause of injury means that the other three elements above must have caused foreseeable (or potentially expected) harm or injury to someone. The harm is usually physical injury, but it can also include mental anguish and permanent psychological injury.

When There’s No Duty Of Care

You cannot successfully meet the first element of negligence if the dog owner does not owe you a duty of care. This applies when you have done something illegal or have made it impossible for the dog owner to exercise his or her duty of care.

For example, if you trespass onto the dog owner’s property, the dog owner does not owe you a duty of care to prevent the dog from biting you. Also, if you provoke a dog by hitting it, startling it, pulling its ears, or trapping it, then the dog owner might not owe you a duty of care.

Understanding Certain States Have Strict Liability Laws

Proving negligence requires you to show that the owner failed to meet a duty of care in preventing the dog from biting. Strict liability has nothing to do with whether the owner owed you a duty of care or whether the owner intended to let the dog bite you. Rather, in states with strict liability laws for dog bites, you need only show that the dog owner is responsible for your injury and that the owner’s dog bit you.

Nevada’s One Bite Rule

Some states, like Nevada, do not have strict liability laws surrounding dog bites but do have a one bite rule. Under that rule, you can hold the owner responsible if the owner knew or should have known that the dog had a propensity to bite. You can show that they were aware of the dog’s aggression if the dog has a record of biting someone before it bit you.

Dangerous Or Deadly Tendency

In states that have a one bite rule, you may show that the dog had a dangerous or deadly tendency that made it more likely to bite. States vary on their definitions of which dogs have a propensity to bite, but they usually have similar criteria.

For example, you might be able to show that a dog had a dangerous tendency because it has been tortured or abused in the past and responded by biting. You might also be able to show a dog’s deadly tendencies by indicating instances in which the dog acts menacingly or causes bodily harm without provocation.

The Intense Dynamics Of Jury Trials In Cases Of Dog Bites

Juries can be somewhat unpredictable in dog bite cases. On one hand, you might be a sympathetic victim who has suffered serious physical and psychological injuries because of the bite. On the other hand, you might live in a state that requires the dog to be put down if you prove it has dangerous tendencies.

Your lawyer and the lawyer of the dog owner will select the jury to try and dismiss members who will be biased toward one side. After both sides are satisfied with the selected jury members, the trial can begin.

The trial starts with an opening statement from the attorney on either side of the case. Since the dog bite victim filed the case, they present their evidence first and let their witnesses speak. Then, the defendant offers their evidence and witnesses. Sometimes, the victim and defendant hire expert witnesses to help the jury understand how the facts of the case are affected by the law.

After the defendant has had the opportunity to present its evidence to the jury, the victim may rebut the defendant’s arguments with additional evidence. Then, each side makes its closing arguments. Finally, the jury deliberates and presents its holdings.

The issues in dog bite cases primarily revolve around who was at fault for the accident and what amount of compensation the winning side deserves. 

Deciding the question of fault usually requires the jury to consider whether the dog owner took reasonable steps to prevent the victim from foreseeable harm. The amount of compensation depends on the patient’s medical bills, missed wages, extent of future care for the injury, and other financial considerations.

In extreme cases, a court might ask the jury to consider awarding punitive damages against the dog owner to punish the dog owner and discourage similar behavior in the future. If you are wondering what kind of damages are appropriate in your case, speak with a dog bite lawyer.

If you or a loved one has been bitten by a dog, speak with an attorney at Zinda Law Group. Call 888-541-6283 for your free case evaluation today.