It is estimated that 4 million people a year are bitten by dogs. At Sussman & Simcox, we have represented many victims of dog bites/attacks. Some incidents resulted in minor skin breaks, while others caused injuries requiring surgery and leaving visible scarring.
It’s always best to think about your potential liability before something bad happens. This article is intended for dog owners to help you consider your risks and be prepared if the worst happens.
Dog Breeds Can Predict Aggressive Behavior
What is the Breed of Your Dog?
Do some research on the history of your dog. Was it traditionally used as a guard dog, hunting dog, or military dog. Certain breeds can be predictive of behavior. A breed used in society for hundreds of years as a guard dog is likely to have a predisposition to protect its owner's family and may see innocent interactions as threats to its owner. There have been numerous incidents of dogs attacking toddlers within a home simply because the dog made an assessment that the toddler was an encroaching animal or other danger. Consider isolating such dogs from visitors.
Is your dog a high-energy breed that was used to run and herd animals in open spaces? What if you live in a small apartment or residence? What exercise routine have you established to allow your dog to dissipate that high energy? Will your dog become frustrated and undisciplined if it is not getting the right amount of exercise? Will it take off out of sight if it gets off a leash?
If you adopted your dog as a rescue rather than as a new puppy, what do you know about the dog’s history? Was it abused or neglected by its prior owner? Was it used as a fighting dog? Such a dog may easily feel threatened and act accordingly.
The size and power of your dog is also an important consideration in your potential liability. Let’s face it, even “good dogs,” like people, can have a bad day. At any time, a dog may behave out of character and against its training, to the surprise of even a responsible owner. If an 8-pound Chihuahua has a bad day and bites someone, the injury is not likely to be on the severe side. If a Pit Bull or other powerful dog has a bad day, an attack can result in severe life-long injuries or even fatalities and expose the owner to substantial liability. More powerful breeds with a statistical history of harming people require the utmost care from owners.
While not exhaustive, the following breeds have the highest reported incidence of fatal injury to humans - Pit Bull (Staffordshire Terrier, American Bull Terrier), Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Bullmastiff, Doberman Pinscher, Siberian Huskie.
Effective Training For Your Dog
A responsible dog owner should spend the time and money necessary to have a dog properly trained. Dogs that do not respond to voice commands are not properly trained. Dogs that try to escape the house every time the door opens are not properly trained. Dogs that pull on the leash to drag the owner across the street to interact with another dog are not well-trained dogs.
Training is essential for the safety of your family and neighbors and for your best experience with a dog. And the truth is, one two-week training session when your dog is a puppy is a good start, but it is not likely to result in a well-trained dog. Supervised classes provide SOME training to a dog, but more importantly, they give information to the owner on training techniques to reinforce over and over long after the class had ended. A well-trained dog has the highest chance of being a safe dog, and this does not happen by accident or through half-hearted efforts. Take a class, buy a book, watch some online videos, and then spend the training time necessary to instill good behavior in your dog.
What is Your Potential Liability?
In Maryland, if your dog has a harmful interaction with a human resulting in injuries, there are several theories of liability under which you could be held responsible.
Strict Liability and Dog Bites
STRICT LIABILITY - If your dog has a known history of being aggressive or having actually bitten someone previously, you may be found liable under a legal theory of strict liability if the dog harms someone else. Why? Because the dog’s prior history has made clear that the dog has the propensity to injure someone. If you continue to keep a dangerous dog in a residential area, you face a form of automatic liability.
Under strict liability, you will be held responsible for a dog bite or related injury even if you took sensible measures to secure the dog. If your dog has previously bitten someone, and this time somehow escapes over a 6-foot high fence to cause injury in the neighborhood, you may still be found responsible under strict liability. (Keeping known dangerous dogs in residential areas can even lead to criminal charges if an attack occurs).
Negligence and Dog Bites
NEGLIGENCE - Even when your pet has no prior history of aggressive behavior, you can be held liable for damages inflicted if you were negligent (unreasonable) in the control of the dog. Did you entrust your 9-year-old to walk the dog unsupervised? Did you chain the dog up in the backyard, go back in the house, and somehow it escaped? Did the dog pull the leash out of your hand and dart after someone?
Most Maryland counties have local ordinances commonly referred to as “leash laws.” The intent of these laws is to protect members of the community from harmful interaction with someone else’s pet. “Running at large” is a common phrase in these leash laws, and you can face municipal fines for your pet running loose in the neighborhood, along with civil liability for negligently controlling your dog if it injures someone.
What if Your Dog Bites Someone?
If your dog caused injury to someone else or to someone’s property, you can be held responsible for the damages incurred. If your dog bites someone or knocks them to the ground and they suffer injury, you can be held liable for the traditional elements of injury damages, including medical bills, lost wages and pain and suffering. If your dog causes property damage, you could be presented with a bill for the repair or replacement of the item(s). And if your dog attacks and injures another dog, you could be responsible for veterinary bills. If a bite incident is reported to the local animal control agency, there is likely to be a formal inquiry 1. to make sure the dog is current on rabies shots (always keep your dog current on vaccinations), 2. why the dog was able to get loose and bite someone, and 3. whether the dog should be considered a “dangerous dog.”
Who Pays for a Dog Bite Injury?
Many dog owners are not aware that homeowners insurance coverage will often pay for injuries caused by dogs, even where the injury did not occur on the homeowners property. If your dog caused injury and you have homeowners or even renters liability insurance, check your coverage. Any claim made against you could be fully paid by your insurance.
But note many insurers are now excluding or limiting insurance payments for dog bites. Don’t get an ugly surprise when it’s too late. If you are a dog owner, check your coverage NOW, before an incident happens, and find out whether you would be covered if your pet bites someone. If you don’t have coverage for dog bites, add the coverage, or find a new insurer that offers this protection. Some policies cover dog bites, but only if your dog is not on a “dangerous breed” list. Without insurance, a dog owner can face personal liability for any damages caused. If you have a big powerful dog that has the potential to cause serious injury, you could face significant financial consequences if you do not have this type of insurance.
What to Do if Your Dog Bites Someone
Notify Your Insurer
Many people offer to make direct payments to someone injured by their pet. “I’ll take care of your medical bills” may seem like a responsible gesture, but it can lead to unintended consequences. Dog bites can cause a whole range of injuries and treatment and leave people with not only medical bills, but long term consequences including scarring and counseling. If you have insurance, you should involve the insurance company early, so it can take control of any injury claim and sort out the liability and damage issues. If the injured party or their attorney asks for your homeowners insurance information, don’t keep it a secret. It does you no good to withhold it even if you feel you didn’t do anything wrong. Let the professionals sort it out. That’s why you have insurance.