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Dogs and the law: what you don’t know can hurt you

Dogs and the law: what you don’t know can hurt you

Get two dog owners together talking about dog bites and sooner or later one of them will bring up the one bite rule. The logic behind this rule is that you don’t know a dog bites until it bites someone the first time, therefore the owner can’t be held liable until the second bite.

Not so, says attorney Judy Devore, an attorney who has taught a course at Los Angeles Valley College on “Fido, the Law and How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend.” In California law, the concept doesn’t exist.

According to Devore, our failure to understand the law can make our best friend vulnerable.

“We live with our dogs,” Devore said.  “We forget that they are potentially dangerous if they get frightened or are triggered by something.”

Four elements have to be proven to win a law suit involving a biting dog:

  • You own the dog or were watching it at the time of the incident. (Yes, you read it right — you can be held liable even if it’s not your dog.)
  • The person who was bitten was in a public place or was lawfully on the same property as the dog, for example a postal worker or delivery person.
  • There was an actual dog bite. This can be interpreted broadly to include grabbing on to clothing or bites that don’t puncture the skin, Devore said.
  • Injury resulted from the incident.

The dog’s owner can be found negligent if he or she failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent an incident: the dog was off-leash, for example, or no beware of dog sign was posted or the dog wasn’t stopped from jumping on someone or tripping them.

Damages from a dog bite can add up quickly if they involve medical bills, plastic surgery, time off work, missed work opportunities, lost income and pain and suffering.

Insurance companies frequently want you to settle a case before it goes to trial, Devore said, noting that the average pay out for a dog bite case is $27,000.

Devore offers the following suggestions for limiting your risks:

  • Prevention. Prevention. Prevention. Know and observe your dog and keep it under control.  “Prevention is the key,” Devore said. “Lawsuits don’t take care of anything.”
  • Carry a copy of your dog’s up-to-date vaccination records with you when you’re out with your dog. It helps to relieve the anxiety of not knowing whether preventive shots against rabies will be required.  And that anxiety can be figured into damage settlements.
  • Respond immediately by going to the vet (if your dog bit another dog) or to the doctor (if your dog bit a person) and picking up the cost of treatment. Don’t delay.
  • Get contact information from anyone who witnessed the incident. “Facts matter less than proof,” said Devore.  “You have to prove your facts to make your case.”
  • Read your homeowners or renters insurance policy. Some have clauses that eliminate coverage after a dog has bitten someone or won’t cover certain breeds of dogs.

No matter how a law suit is settled, no one comes out a winner — least of all the dog, Devore noted.

Learn more about the legal status of dogs in this post, “Is your dog worth enough to your vet, groomer or doggie day care owners?”