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Dog Bites: Who Might Be Liable?

Dogs usually live up to their title as “man’s best friend,” the perfect playmates and most loyal companions. Unfortunately, sometimes they can act violently due to things like fear or aggression. When a dog bites a person, it can lead to a variety of medical complications, legal actions, and emotional distress for both the victim and the dog owner.

SEVERE DOG BITES CAN BE DEVASTATING

In the period from 2005 to 2013, Texas saw 34 dog bite-related fatalities—the highest number in the nation.¹ From 2011 to 2016, there were 102 pediatric dog bite cases (involving patients aged 18 or younger) in Central Texas alone.² Needless to say, dog bites and maulings are clearly a serious problem for the state, albeit one that isn’t commonly discussed.

A dog bite can happen in a number of ways. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, dogs typically bite as a reaction to something. When the reason for the bite is only in the dog’s perception, however, it can seem to come out of the blue.

Common reasons a dog may bite include:

  • Feeling startled or threatened
  • Trying to protect puppies, human family members, food, or toys
  • Wanting to be left alone when they don’t feel well
  • Getting too excited during playtime (may nip or bite too hard accidentally)³

Even if the bite occurs by accident, the physical repercussions for human victims can be significant. Naturally, the complications are even more dangerous for small children, elderly people, and other vulnerable individuals than they are for healthy adults.

The following are examples of both minor and major complications:

  • Intense pain
  • Loss of blood (including the risk of severed veins/arteries)
  • Need for stitches
  • Wound infection (and risk of sepsis)
  • Scars and/or disfigurement
  • Broken bones
  • Muscle and nerve damage
  • Rabies
  • Tetanus
  • Permanent disability
  • Internal injuries
  • Death

In addition to the repercussions for the victims of dog bites, there can also be unfortunate consequences for the dogs themselves. A dog that has bitten a human will be classified as dangerous and may be euthanized if it has caused severe bodily harm or death and is viewed by authorities as a threat to public safety.

DETERMINING LIABILITY

Typically, determining liability in a personal injury case is based on the evidence of fault or negligence. Negligence is defined as the failure to take reasonable action to prevent or address risks one should reasonably have been aware of. If, for example, an employer ignores chemical exposure risks and their employees fall ill, the employer’s failure to protect or warn workers would be considered negligence.

In the case of dog bites, different states have different views of liability. In some states, dog bite cases are governed by “strict liability statutes,” which do not require the injured party to prove that the dog’s owner was negligent in their duty. In Texas, however, such statutes do not exist.

THE REALITY OF TEXAS DOG BITE LAW

In the state of Texas, there is no specific legislation governing civil liability in dog bite cases. In the 1974 case of Marshall v. Ranne, however, the Texas Supreme Court decided that a section of law regarding Restatement of Torts could be applied to dog bites. As a result, Texas is considered a “one bite rule” state.

Under the “one bite” view of law, Texas judges are largely focused on whether or not the dog’s owner should reasonably have known the dog posed a bite risk. In order to win compensation, the victim needs to be able to show that the dog’s owner more than likely was aware or should have been aware of the bite risk. If they cannot, that one bite is seen as something that could not have been predicted or prevented.

If the dog has never bitten anyone or been aggressive before and there is not sufficient evidence to prove that the owner should have known of the bite risk, they may not be ordered to pay compensation (but the dog will then be categorized as dangerous for having bitten someone). If a dog that has already been classified as dangerous bites someone again, it’s clear that the owner knew about the risk.

For example, a family adopts a new dog that seems to be getting along fine. When a stranger comes to the house a few days later, the dog gets protective and ends up biting the stranger. The bite does not require stitches and neither the family nor the shelter is aware of any history of aggression or biting.

If the injured stranger sues the family and they are unable to show that they should reasonably have known that the dog might bite someone, they’re not likely to be found liable. If, on the other hand, the family learns that the animal shelter withheld information about their pet’s dangerous dog status, the shelter could be considered liable.

DEADLINE FOR FILING A DOG BITE LAWSUIT

Texas law gives victims of dog bites a two-year statute of limitations. If the injured person does not file a lawsuit within two years after the date of the incident, the court will likely dismiss the case upfront, and the victim will not be able to seek compensation for bite-related damages.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU’VE BEEN BITTEN BY A DOG

If you are ever seriously bitten by a dog, use the following tips to protect yourself both physically and legally:

  1. Immediately administer first aid. Call for emergency medical services if necessary.
  2. Make sure you and the dog are securely separated so it cannot attack you again.
  3. For anything more than a surface scratch, call the police to report the bite. Not only is it important to file a report for insurance companies and animal control, but police presence can be helpful in the case that the dog’s owner is being hostile toward you.
  4. Ask for information about the dog’s history, especially with regard to their vaccination record. If the dog has not been properly vaccinated against diseases like tetanus and rabies, you may need to be tested for them.
  5. Take pictures of your injuries, or have someone else take them. Continue to photograph your injuries at all stages of healing to serve as evidence of their progression and the end result.
  6. Do your best to stay calm. Becoming emotional and aggressive may upset the dog further and lead to unnecessary fighting with the dog’s owner.
  7. Be careful not to say anything that might sound like an admission of fault. Even something like “maybe I riled him up too much” or “I shouldn’t have tried to pet her” could be misinterpreted as fault and used against you.
  8. Contact a personal injury lawyer as soon as you can. They can help you determine liability in the situation and whether or not you have a case for a dog bite lawsuit.
GET HELP FROM THE PERSONAL INJURY LAWYERS AT SCHECHTER, SHAFFER & HARRIS, L.L.P

Have you been bitten by a dog you suspect was known to be dangerous? With the help of a Houston personal injury attorney from our firm, you may be able to receive damages to help you cover medical bills and other losses. Schedule a free consultation with one of our experienced attorneys to discuss liability and determine whether or not you have a good case for a dog bite lawsuit.

Call us today at (713) 893-0971 to get started.

Sources:

  1. https://www.dogsbite.org/dogsbite-newsroom-2013-report-texas-dog-bite-fatalities-8-year-review.php
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30473254
  3. https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/why-do-dogs-bite

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