Dog bite law - Protecting yourself, your staff your clients and the dog (Proceedings)


Dog bite law - Protecting yourself, your staff your clients and the dog (Proceedings)

Apr 01, 2009

As a veterinarian who serves clients owning a dog, there are two issues to be concerned with that involve dog bite law. One issue involves a situation where a dog of one of your clients bites someone, usually not a family member, and the bite causes some physical damage or disfigurement, often with a temporary or permanent loss of employment. Your client is sued by the person who was bitten and is represented by an attorney working on a contingency basis. As a veterinarian who has treated the dog, you may find your records about the dog subpoenaed and you may be deposed with regard to your knowledge about the dog. A complication of a client's dog biting someone is that on rare occasions you may have attempted to treat the aggressive behavior and this client claims you led them to believe their dog was now safe.

Some states have a strict liability law which means that for any dog bite the owner of the dog is liable for medical expenses and loss of income regardless of whether or not the owner was aware of the dog's potential to bite. Other states have what is commonly referred to as the "one-free-bite" law in which a dog owner is not liable until the dog delivers one bite. Theoretically, the dog owner is not responsible until the second bite, assuming the client has been aware that there was a first bite.

The second situation involving veterinarians is if you, or one of your staff, gets bitten by a client's dog. In this situation veterinarians generally fall into the assumed risk exception to the strict liability law. As a small animal veterinarian treating dogs all day long, it is assumed that you are well aware of the risk with any particular dog brought into your facility and that you assume the risk if you, or a member of your staff, is bitten.

Some Background

Believe it or not, a small industry in litigation has developed with attorneys specializing in dog bite litigation and they advertise for cases in which they will represent a plaintiff who was bitten and is pursuing damages from the dog bite. The attorneys that specialize in dog bites generally only take on cases for plaintiffs and do not take on cases for the defense. For the most part, attorneys that represent plaintiffs work on a contingency basis plus, possibly, some hourly fees if the case is not promising enough.

Attorneys defending the owner of the biting dog are usually paid by an insurance company on an hourly basis. It may be useful to keep in mind that the major source of income for attorneys representing plaintiffs is from winning cases with punitive damages for malicious actions on the part of the dog owner, and getting 30-40% of the settlement. Attorneys for the defense get paid regardless of the outcome. Insurance companies are generally trying to minimize the damages that they have to pay. In most dog bite cases there is a settlement; only rarely does a case actually go to trial even though in most cases a trial date will be scheduled.

Client's Dog Bites Another Person

In this situation the plaintiff's attorney is going to look for evidence that the case involves more than the strict liability, or "one-free-bite," guidelines of liability for medical expenses and income loss. They will look for punitive damages that represent "malicious" behavior of the owner who "knew full well how dangerous the dog was," and allowed the dog to severely injure someone. This is where the big payoff is and it goes beyond the limits generally set by strict liability with "ordinary negligence."

In these circumstances the plaintiff's attorney will be looking for any evidence that the client was told by you that their dog was dangerous. Therefore, they may want to subpoena your records looking for evidence that you told the client the dog was aggressive and to look out for this dog around children, take the dog to obedience class, and/or have a consultation with a behavior therapist to deal with the aggressive behavior. The plaintiff's attorney will look for evidence that there was a communication among your staff about how to deal with this dog, such as a note in the record, "Watch out, dog may bite." This would be a flag for the plaintiff's attorney to then ask you about the degree to which you informed the owner of these risks.