Canines in Court: Bites Are Biggest Financial Risk for Dog Owners

By Janet Howard

Most responsible dog owners recognize the maintenance costs of owning a pet. Training, veterinary care, food and flea control are some of the common costs of owning a dog. However, owners may underestimate the risk of their dog biting and causing injury to another animal or a person.

Over 800,000 dog bites are reported every year in the United States. Dog-bite claims represent one-quarter of all homeowner insurance policy claims. The financial repercussions of a dog bite can range from a few hundred dollars for an emergency room visit to over $1 million for a disfigurement or wrongful death claim originating from a mauling. Even a small dog can inflict serious injury to a child or an elderly person. Dog owners need to be mindful of those situations that might cause a dog to bite, and make efforts to prevent or avoid them.

Although dogs don’t have legal rights, most courts presume a dog is innocent until proven guilty. Unless a pattern of aggression has been documented by animal control or the police, a pet dog is usually assumed to be good-natured. This is one reason dog-bite cases often end up in litigation. Dog owners will defend their animal’s actions as justified, while the injured party will cite reasons to the contrary. The result is time spent in court, money spent for legal representation, and the possibility of a hefty settlement being imposed. In addition, a fairly docile dog might be labelled as a nuisance animal, putting it under the scrutiny of law enforcement for the duration of its life. It may also be deemed vicious, a label that is almost certain to lead to the dog being euthanized.

Although dog bite laws vary from state to state, in most cases, the dog owner is held liable for the injuries caused when their dog bites. There are a few clear-cut situations in which the dog’s owner is exempt from liability, such as a dog attacking a person breaking into the house.

It may not be possible to completely prevent dog bites, but there are precautions every dog owner should take. The first is to train and socialize the animal. A dog that is well trained and used to being around other pets and strangers is less likely to be aggressive when confronted by a new face. In addition, the disciplined dog will stop any aggressive behavior when its owner commands it to do so.

Second, supervise or limit interactions between dogs and small children. This may seem cruel, but young children don’t have a firm grasp on what constitutes teasing or provocation to an animal. New York courts, for example, have ruled that a child under the age of 4 is innocent even if he or she engages in roughhouse behavior toward a dog, such as pulling its tail or ears. It is best to keep the dog out of reach when a child is present.

Third, be cautious when adopting a rescue animal. Rescue dogs may have a history of being abused and can be triggered to react defensively by actions that well-socialized animals would deem innocuous. If a rescue dog’s background is unknown, it is wise to introduce new situations and new people guardedly. Keep interactions quiet and calm; in the dog’s mind, abrupt movements or loud noises may be associated with pain or fear.

Finally, accept that all dogs can and will bite. Just because a dog has never bitten anyone before doesn’t mean it won’t do so. Owning a breed or mix that is prone to bite, such as the Rottweiler or chow, might require the homeowner to add a rider to an existing homeowner’s policy or obtain an umbrella liability policy. Don’t assume that having a “beware of dog” sign posted on a fence or door offers protection; in many states, the presence of such a sign is considered evidence that the owner knows the dog is dangerous.

The dog has been considered man’s best friend for centuries. Friends don’t allow friends to end up on the wrong side of a lawsuit. Control, containment and common sense keep canines out of the courtroom and their owners out of financial hot water.

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