How Much Can I Sue for a Dog Bite?
Personal injury cases involving dog attacks can be very traumatic to say the least. If you've just been bitten by an animal, please seek medical care immediately and bookmark this article for later.
Most of the time, you'll be able to sue to recover money for your dog bite injuries unless you're dealing with a stray dog that doesn't belong to an animal shelter or other government agency. The amount that you can sue for will depend on the extent of your injuries, the strictness of dog bite laws in your state, and the circumstances that resulted in a dog owner's failure to prevent harm to you.
A dog bite attorney or personal injury lawyer can provide you with an estimated calculation of how much you can sue for. Keep in mind, however, that the amount you actually end up recovering might be limited to the pet owner's net worth or insurance policy limit, whichever is greater.
State Laws Governing Dog Bite Lawsuits
Under common law (historical case law), a “one-bite rule" required that a dog bite victim would first prove that the owner of the dog either knew or should have known that their dog had a likelihood of injuring others. In other words, the dog would get away with the first bite (“one bite") or the first time that it displayed dangerous behavior, but its owner would have to be alert from then on to watch out for repeat offenses.
Today, most states don't follow purely the common law one-bite rule. As of this writing, 36 states have enacted strict liability dog bite statutes, which make owners responsible for their dogs' attacks regardless of their ability to do anything to prevent harm caused by their dogs. On the other hand, just 14 states follow either a modified version of the one-bite rule or general negligence law, and those states are Wyoming, Virginia, Vermont, Texas, South Dakota, North Dakota, New York, New Mexico, Nevada, Mississippi, Kansas, Idaho, Arkansas, and Alaska.
In the other 36 states, negligence law still applies, which means that a victim may sue under strict liability, but may also use the one-bite rule to show that an owner is liable for negligence separate from being strictly liable for the accident.
This may be confusing so let's go over it again. The three different laws are:
- One-Bite Rule
- Strict Liability
As you will learn below, a violation of the one-bite rule in modern times is more or less a violation of negligence law. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, you can think of it this way:
- 36 states allow you to sue under strict liability and negligence.
- 14 states allow you to sue only under negligence, which may involve an aspect of the one-bite rule.
Okay, but that is still confusing. If you're asking what strict liability is and why it's different from negligence, you're on the right track. If you're struggling to understand why the one-bite rule is relevant to negligence, you're asking the right questions.
Strict Liability Versus Negligence
Strict liability laws come in all flavors and your state's laws may not exactly follow the rules below, but in general, when a dog owner is strictly liable, it means:
- the dog owner is responsible even if they didn't do anything wrong, as long as
- their dog attacked and injured someone, and
- the injured person wasn't doing something illegal like committing robbery or trespassing on the dog owner's property at the time of the injury, and
- the injured person didn't purposefully provoke the animal, such as by harassing or taunting it prior to the attack.
But wait, there's more—if your strict liability dog bite claim goes to trial, you'll need to show:
- the person or entity you sued actually owns the dog (remember, a stray dog means you can't pin dog bite liability on anyone unless you can show the stray dog escaped while still under the government's or someone's care);
- the dog bit you somewhere where you were lawfully present (such as a public place or a private place to which you were invited);
- you actually suffered harm; and
- the harm was substantially caused by the dog bite, and not something else.
Some states are a bit laxer on these requirements. For example, in certain places, even someone who deserves their bitten fate — like a robber or trespasser — might be able to sue for their dog bite injuries if they can show that the dog owner was negligent in allowing the dog to harm them.
Negligence law is far more forgiving than strict liability statutes. In dog bite cases, proving negligence requires a showing that:
- the dog owner had a duty of care to act reasonably in handling their dog and effectively preventing it from injuring people or property;
- the dog owner breached their duty, either by acting carelessly or by violating a law that requires all dogs be leashed;
- the dog owner's carelessness or violation caused a victim to suffer dog bite injuries to their person or property;
- there is resulting damage to the defendant, such as in the form of personal medical bills or costs to replace broken property.
In negligence law, the above elements are more generally known as duty, breach, causation, and damages. In most cases where a victim has been obeying the law and minding their own business, satisfying the elements will be easy to the extent that the victim can show the dog owner acted carelessly or unreasonably. An owner's failure to act can itself be a form of negligent behavior, especially if an owner could have pulled back on their dog's leash or made other attempts to restrain a potential attack.
Negligence law is more forgiving on dog owners than strict liability because it requires that a plaintiff would prove that the defendant was at fault in the way they handled their dog. Under negligence, it's much easier to avoid fault if a defendant can show that the harm caused to the plaintiff was not foreseeable, especially if the dog's breed is known to be friendly or mild-mannered.
While in the strict liability context, the law doesn't care whether or not a defendant acted reasonably to prevent harm to likely victims, negligence law gives an opportunity to the defendant to argue that they could have never reasonably anticipated that the harm would have occurred in the circumstances that led to the injury. This is where the one-bite rule becomes relevant again.
For example, a defendant who has a well-behaved dog might argue that given their dog's calm demeanor prior to an accident, it would have been unforeseeable for them to expect that it would try to bite anyone. At trial, the plaintiff might borrow the logic of the one-bite rule by showing evidence from animal control records that suggest the dog has a history of previous aggressions.
Animal Control Reports
Sometimes, your local city or county's animal control department may become involved in your dog bite case, especially if you suffered serious injuries. An animal control officer may investigate the accident and prepare a report. Depending on the facts of the case, the dog owner may face restrictions on the manner in which they handle their pet. For repeat offenders, dog owners may even be forced to legally forfeit their animals if they are unable to keep others safe from their aggressions.
In addition to witnesses and medical treatment reports prepared by doctors, an animal control report may be helpful in both strict liability and negligence cases because it could be used as evidence to show how a bite occurred, whether it caused injuries, and whether the dog owner or the victim acted reasonably in the circumstances.
Dog Bite Aggression Scale
How much you sue for will come down to the nature and degree to which you suffer severe injuries, alongside the extent to which your lacerations will require medical attention. For instance, the veterinarian Dr. Ian Dunbar's Dog Bite Scale, as published by the Association of the Professional Dog Trainers (APDT), breaks down dog bite injuries into six levels:
- Level 1 - Aggressive behavior but no tooth contact
- Level 2 - Skin contact but no skin puncture
- Level 3 - Several punctures no deeper than a half-tooth length
- Level 4 - Several punctures with at least one deeper than a half-tooth length
- Level 5 - Multiple bites causing two or more level 4 punctures
- Level 6 - Victim dead
While most accidents might fall under the first two levels, you may have a good case no matter how bad your injuries may be. Some states will also recognize injuries, such as mental and emotional anguish, that go beyond physical harm alone. At Level 6, while the victim themselves might not live to sue, their representative may be able to bring a wrongful death case against the dog owner.
How much you sue for and what you end up recovering (your remedies) can vary depending on what state you live in, but the law generally provides for multiple categories of damages.
Entertain this hypothetical scenario: You were on your morning run on the public sidewalk, minding your own business when your neighbor's unleashed dog started chasing after you. Not knowing what to do, you kept your head down and stayed quiet, avoiding eye contact with the animal as you tried to get away. The frantic owner screamed at their dog to stop and come back, but it was too late: Mr. Puggles planted a fat tooth mark on your left ankle. You ended up getting stitches in the emergency room.
What will you sue for? Depending on your state, you may sue for strict liability or negligence, or both. Your general argument under strict liability will be that the dog owner is at fault because their dog harmed you even though you tried to do everything right. Under a negligence theory, you could argue that the dog owner should have known better than to unleash their dog near a public sidewalk and that they failed to meet a duty of care to prevent foreseeable harm to a likely victim — a jogging passerby — such as yourself. Under both theories, the defendant will have a difficult time getting away from liability, even if they try to (weakly) argue that they made an effort to scream at their dog to get it to come back.
What remedies will you seek? Depending on your state, available injury damages include:
- Lost earnings (past/present/future wages) — You lost time from work.
- Medical bills for treatment of wounds — You had to pay a large hospital bill.
- Medical expenses for ongoing or long-term care that may be needed — You will have to pay a live-in nurse while recovering from immobility.
- Pain and suffering — Your wounds hurt, your bones ache, and you are very miserable.
- Emotional distress, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — The nightmares won't stop.
- Temporary or permanent disfigurement or disability — You've lost skin that needs to grow back, or worse, you've lost toes or fingers that you will never get back.
- Punitive damages — The Defendant acted in such an outrageous way that the court should punish them and deter others from doing the same in the future.
Get Legal Advice Today
An animal or dog bite lawyer, who is a kind of personal injury attorney, can give you a better idea of how much you can recover. If you or a loved one have injury claims or even property damage resulting from an animal, especially a dog, you may be eligible for a hefty dog bite settlement. Many dog bite lawyers provide free consultations and may take your case on contingency, meaning that you will not owe them any up-front fees until they have secured money from the dog owner or a settlement offer from their insurance company.
There is a statute of limitations to bring your dog bite lawsuit into court, which means you can't wait beyond a certain period after the injury to file your case. This is so that evidence won't get stale, witnesses won't become unavailable, and memories don't fade through the passage of time following an accident. The statute of limitations period varies depending on the state, and usually follows the same deadline for other kinds of personal injury cases, such as car accidents. This could be as short as one year to as long as a few years, so don't delay.