We Americans love our animals. We especially love dogs. Unfortunately, as the popularity of dogs continues to rise, so do concerns about their potential to inflict serious and even fatal injuries on human beings. Here’s an overview of the legal considerations that apply to dog-bite cases.
To begin with, there’s no question that pet ownership is on the rise in the United States. About 85 million U.S. families own at least one pet. That’s 67% of all households, a jump from 56% in 1988, when this kind of survey was first conducted. And about 60 million of those households include a dog. That makes dogs the most popular pet, by far, in the United States.
But as much as we love our dogs, all of us should be alert to the fact that things can go wrong, sometimes horrifically wrong, when it comes to dogs and their behavior toward human beings.
Perhaps the most notorious dog attack in modern times was a 2001 incident involving a San Francisco homeowner. She was attacked in her own doorway as she arrived home from the grocery store. The two Presa Canario dogs who attacked her — one of which weighed 140 pounds — were owned by a neighbor couple. The victim suffered wounds to every part of her body, except her scalp and the bottoms of her feet; she died of massive blood loss within hours of the attack. The dogs’ owners were charged with a crime. Both owners were convicted and sent to prison.
Closer to home, Coloradans may remember the 2016 Conifer attack, just west of Denver, in which two pit bulls killed a 60-year-old woman whose son owned the dogs. The dogs were very familiar with the victim; for all intents and purposes they were her family dogs. Yet they brutally and inexplicably attacked her in her own garage, mauling her neck, arms, and legs.
And as recently as January of this year, a longtime teacher and beloved member of the Taos Pueblo was killed by a pack of dogs that were running loose on Pueblo land.
Incidents like these, though rare, are increasing. Generally speaking, about 40 people in the U.S. will die from dog bites in a given year, and it’s clear that the number of deaths from dog attacks is on the rise.
What are some common injuries in dog bite cases?
As horrifying as the fatalities are, it’s the serious but nonfatal dog bites that are the more common concern. Every year about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the United States. Their injuries range from superficial punctures to the kinds of disfiguring and even fatal wounds that we’ve just described. Among children, the rate of dog-bite-related injuries is highest for kids ages 5 to 9.
Kids tend to get bitten on the head, face, and neck, since they have proportionately larger heads and shorter stature. Adults are more commonly bitten on their hands and arms.
In every case, the initial injury is, of course, the bite: the physical trauma of the dog’s teeth puncturing and often tearing the soft tissue. Some dog bites involve blunt force that is strong enough to break bones.
And it’s not uncommon for the injury to have follow-on effects. These longer-term consequences vary widely and may include ruptured tendons, nerve injuries, rabies, and even post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. In light of these risks, our society imposes on dog owners some serious responsibilities.
How do dog bite lawsuits work?
The law gives victims of a dog attack the right to hold the owner accountable and to seek compensation for their injuries.
There are two basic legal approaches to holding a dog owner accountable for these kinds of injuries. The first kind of approach focuses on the legal concept of negligence. For example, did the dog owner know that the dog had a tendency to bite? (Under a concept informally labeled the “one-bite rule,” a dog owner will be liable only if the owner knew or should have known that his or her dog was dangerous.) Or perhaps the owner was unreasonably careless in controlling the dog, as when a gate is left open or the dog is off-leash. The issue is whether some sort of negligent behavior on the owner’s part led to the victim’s injuries.
The second approach to holding dog owners accountable is a legal concept known as strict liability. Strict liability says that there are times when a party should be considered liable — even without any evidence of fault — simply because the injuries were so severe, or because the circumstances leading up to the injury were inherently dangerous. When strict liability is applied, the dog owner will be liable, whether or not they knew the dog had a tendency to bite. In other words, the dog owner is automatically liable.
With those two approaches in mind, let’s talk about the laws specific to Colorado and Durango when it comes to dogs and dog bites.
Basically, Colorado has adopted a combination of these two legal concepts, strict liability and negligence. Section 13-21-124 of the Colorado Revised Statutes says that a dog owner is strictly liable for dog bites, but only if the bite victim sustains severe bodily injury or dies from the bite. By contrast, if the injury is not serious or deadly, then negligence rules apply. In other words, in Colorado we start by looking at the severity of the victim’s injuries, and then we “work backwards,” so to speak, to determine the owner’s legal responsibility.
Let’s take the strict-liability scenario first. Under Colorado law, “serious bodily injury” means injury that involves a substantial risk of death, of serious permanent disfigurement, or of the loss or impairment of function in any part or organ of the body. It also includes breaks or fractures.
When a dog attack causes these kinds of injuries, or death, then Colorado’s dog-bite law says that the owner is liable, whether or not he or she knew that the dog had any tendency to be vicious or dangerous.
Alternatively, when the victim’s injuries don’t rise to the level of “serious bodily injury,” then the owner’s responsibilities will be evaluated in terms of negligence. What did the owner know? What kinds of behavior or conduct did the owner engage in that may have contributed to the injuries? Perhaps the owner will try to say that the victim provoked the dog, or was trespassing in spite of signs that clearly said “no trespassing” or “beware of the dog,” and so on. Generally speaking, the legal standard is, Did the owner act in accordance with what a reasonable dog owner would have done in those circumstances?
There’s another body of law to consider in dog-bite cases. Like most cities its size, Durango has city ordinances — often called “leash laws” — specifically intended to protect its residents and visitors from dog attacks. For example, a Durango city ordinance prohibits owning or harboring a vicious animal (Durango Municipal Code Chapter 4, Sec. 4-14). An animal deemed vicious can be removed and in some cases even destroyed by animal control officers, without the owner’s consent. Chapter 4, Section 4-41 of the Durango ordinances makes it illegal for a dog to be off the owner’s premises and without a leash. Whenever a dog owner violates one of these leash laws, or allows his or her dog to run “at large,” then that owner can be held liable for injuries caused by the dog.
Does insurance cover dog bite injuries?
Dog-bite injuries are typically covered by homeowners’ insurance or renter’s insurance.
Typically, these policies cover dog-bite liability up to limits that range from $100,000 to $300,000. Claims that exceed the limit will fall directly on the dog owner.
In 2018, insurance companies paid out $675 million in liability claims related to dog bites and other dog-related injuries. That year, the average cost paid out per dog-bite claim, nationwide, was $39,017. Today the trend is toward higher payouts. These higher payments are attributable not only to actual bites, but also to dogs knocking down children, cyclists, and the elderly, incidents that can result in serious injuries.
Not surprisingly, whenever an insurance company is involved, the dog-bite victim should expect a legal battle. The insurance company will do everything in its power to deny that the owner is liable. It will downplay the victim’s injuries and will seek to minimize his or her economic recovery. Accordingly, a dog-bite victim who is considering legal action against a dog owner should be careful to enlist a highly qualified legal professional.
What should you do after a dog bite injury?
First, if you or someone you know has been bitten by a dog, act quickly. The victim’s physical well-being is the immediate concern. Even relatively minor wounds can become infected. Therefore, seek medical help. Any and all dog bites should be carefully evaluated by a medical professional, keeping in mind the risk of potential complications.
Next, create a record of what happened, as soon after the event as possible. Take photographs, whenever possible, and be sure to keep copies of the victim’s medical records. Eyewitness testimony and notes may become important.
Finally, as quickly as possible after the attack occurs, contact an attorney who can advise you of your rights. You’ll want to consult with someone who can help you understand Colorado’s rather unusual dog-bite laws, and how Colorado law applies to your unique situation, including what kind of compensation may be available to you. Durango attorney Marshall R. Sumrall is ready to meet with you, free of charge, for an initial consultation regarding your dog-bite case. Call the Sumrall Law Office, or inquire online, and speak to a lawyer today about your dog bite case.
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