Being attacked or bitten by a dog can be a terrifying ordeal; not only can this type of incident leave you with physical scars and long-term injuries, but you may be left with psychological scarring as well. If you've recently been injured by a dog bite, you may be wondering whether you have a legal case against the dog's owner. After all, dog owners in Arizona have a legal obligation to keep their pets from biting or attacking other people.
Ultimately, the best way to determine whether or not you have a strong case is to consult with an experienced personal injury law firm in Phoenix.
Types of Dog Bite/Attack Claims
There are two types of Dog Bite & Dog Attack Claims. One is under “strict liability” while the other requires proving “negligence” on the part of the dog owner
Strict Liability Claims
If you are bitten or attacked by a dog at large, the dog owner is strictly liable for your injuries and damages. “Dog at Large” means that the dog was both “unleashed” and not on its property. Strictly liable means that all you have to prove is ownership of the dog to bring a claim against its owner. For example, if a dog escapes its yard and attacks or bites you, it will be considered to be “at large,” making the dog owner strictly liable for your injuries and damages. Actual physical contact with the dog(s) is not necessarily required. For example, if a dog is chasing you and you fall and injure yourself trying to escape, you can bring a claim under this statute
If you are bitten by a dog, regardless of whether it was leashed or not, and regardless of whether the bite occurred in the home or on the property of the dog owner, or off the property, the dog’s owner is strictly liable for your injuries and damages.
Under these strict liability statutes, you have only one year from the date of loss (the date of the bite or attack) to settle your claim, or file suit against the dog owner
Because dog owners are “strictly” liable for the injuries and damages caused by their dogs under these statutes, generally all you must prove is ownership of the dog. There are however, two exceptions to an owner being strictly liable for your injuries and damages.
The two exceptions are “provocation” and/or “trespass.”
In all practicality, a defense of trespass really only applies to bites/attacks that occur on the dog owner’s property or in the dog owner’s home, and it means exactly as it sounds … you (the victim) are there without permission.
A “provocation” defense means that a reasonably prudent person would deem your conduct (prior to the bite or attack) as having provoked the dog. Provocation is somewhat ambiguous, but could conceivably include teasing a dog, poking it with an object, pulling at its tail or ears, etc.
Provocation is often argued as a “defense” when one is hurt trying to break up a fight between dogs. However, there is case law from other states (whose strict liability statutes are worded very similar to Arizona’s) that holds that a dog engaged in a dog fight is already in a provoked state such that while an attempt to break up the fight might serve to re-direct the dog’s aggression, it does not constitute provocation since you can’t provoke a dog that is already in a provoked state.
However, it is important to note that dogs can be very territorial and so coming into their “zone” can potentially lead to a defense of trespass and/or provocation. This might apply if they are on a chain in a backyard and you get within the zone where their chain can extend and reach. This might also apply if you get close to them an reach for their food or toy.
Under common law “negligence” claims, the victim has the burden of proving the owner knew, or should have known, their dog had violent propensities or tendencies, and/or potentially posed a risk. This is often referred to as the “one free bite” rule. If the dog has never exhibited violence before, proving the owner was negligent can be difficult, but once their dog has bitten once, they are now on “notice” of their dog’s potential for violence and must exercise greater care in preventing them from biting, attacking, escaping, etc.
Allowing a dog to get loose from their yard could give rise to a negligence claim. Walking a dog without a lease such that the dog runs and attacks/bites when they see another person or animal can give rise to a negligent claim
Claims brought under common law negligence are subject to a number of defenses, including but not limited to trespass, provocation, and “comparative negligence” by the victim (did the victim act negligent in any way such their own negligence contributed to their being bitten or attacked).
Under common law negligence claims, the victim has two years from the date of loss to settle their claim or file suit against the dog owner.
Claims brought under Strict Liability are obviously easier for the reasons stated above. However, if one year from the date of loss has already passed, the victim would still have another year to settle or litigate that claim under a theory of general negligence.
Coverage/Sources of Recovery
Most homeowner’s and Renter’s liability insurance policies will cover injuries and damages from dog bites and/or attacks under theories of both strict liability and/or general negligence. However, some policies specifically exclude coverage for dog bites or attacks. They may exclude coverage because the dog (or the owner’s prior dogs) had bitten or attacked before. They may exclude coverage because the breed at issue is one that has an alleged propensity for violence (eg: a pit bull).
If the dog owner has homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, they will likely have both liability coverage and “medical payment” coverage. Med Pay coverage is a small amount available to the injured party regardless of fault. Med Pay coverage usually ranges from $1,000.00 to $10,000.00. Liability coverage is only available if the dog owner is proven to be at fault/liable for your injuries and damages. It covers medical bills in excess of any Med pay coverage, as well as any other out of pocket expenses (like lost wages) and pain and suffering. Liability limits are usually six figures.
If the dog owner lacks liability insurance, but resides with someone else that does have liability insurance, whether that other person’s liability insurance may cover the dog owner’s liability could depend on a variety of factors that could vary on a case by case basis.
If the dog owner lives in an apartment complex, gated community, or trailer park that prohibits all dogs or the dog owner’s breed of dog, partial liability (comparative negligence) can potentially be asserted against the property owner for allowing the dog owner to possess a dog prohibited by the complex. However, this will likely require proving that the actual property owner or management company knew, or should have known, that the dog owner did indeed possess and/or house a dog prohibited by the complex.
If there is no liability insurance to cover your injuries and damages, you only other option would be to personally pursue the dog owner. Whether or not this is a viable option will likely depend on the dog owner’s ability to pay out of pocket
What “Damages” are typically paid for in a dog bit/attack claim
Medical bills tend to be the most influential factor in the size of a dog bite case settlement. Even if you were only bitten once by a dog, you may have needed costly medical treatment in the form of stitches, a rabies test, and more. And of course, if you were the victim of a more brutal dog attack, there is a good chance you may have even needed surgery, skin grafting, or other more complex (and costly) procedures. Either way, the dog's owner should be responsible for all medical bills you incurred as a result of the incident, as well as foreseeable future medical expenses. For example, scars often need to heal for a year before scar revision procedures can be considered. If the victim is a minor, any scar revision procedures may need to wait until the child stops growing. When faced with such situations, we often have our clients evaluated by a plastic surgeon who can issue a report recommending the types of scar revision procedures that might help reduce any long term and/or permanent scarring, the estimated percentage of improvement each type of procedure might yield, and the costs of each such procedure
Dog bite events often go far beyond physical injuries, however. The emotional suffering you may experience as a result of being attacked by a dog can be life-altering. Many victims of brutal dog attacks end up developing conditions such as anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The degree of permanent scarring, as well as the location of such scarring, can be a big factor in evaluating a person’s pain and suffering. An adult laborer might already have scars such that an additional scar does nothing to his psyche, whereas facial scarring or scarring on a women’s legs might be very traumatizing to them in terms of dating, self-esteem, etc.
Putting a dollar amount on this type of suffering can be more difficult than seeking compensation for medical bills, but it is not something that should be overlooked.
Loss of Income
If you were unable to work for any period of time after your dog bite incident, you may also be entitled to compensation for lost wages. Whether you missed a day of work or had to frequently take time off for medical appointments, the dog's owner should be legally responsible for making sure you are reimbursed for this time. This can also include time you missed to care for your child or spouse if they were the victims of the bite/attack
These are examples of some of the most influential factors that can affect the value of your dog bite claim. However, this is not an exhaustive list. Consulting with a personal injury law firm in Phoenix is still the best way to determine the true value of your claim moving forward, but this should give you a general idea of the types of damages you can claim in a dog bite case.
What to Do if You've Been Bitten By a Dog
Knowing the proper steps to take in the event that you are bitten by a dog can make your case go a lot more smoothly. And if you've already been injured in a dog attack, it's not too late to follow these steps.
Report the incident to Animal Control
The most important thing to do after being bitten by a dog—even if your injuries seem minimal—is to contact Animal Control. This will serve to document what happened, when, and how, as well as help identify the dog owner’s name, address, and phone number.
Asking any witnesses of the bite or attack to provide their contact information that you can then give to Animal Control or the dog owner’s insurance carrier. If possible, ask them to wait to speak to Animal Control, police, or another authority.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask the dog owner for their name, address, phone number, and their homeowner’s or renter’s insurance information (carrier, policy number, etc.)
Seek Medical Attention
Next, seek medical attention, even if your injuries seem minimal. Even a seemingly minor dog bite can turn into a major infection that lead to debridement surgeries (to clean out the infection), or other health complications. Being checked out by a medical professional can give you added peace of mind, while having proof that you received prompt medical attention after the incident will also help to build credibility for your case.
Consult with an Attorney
Next, it's time to consult with an experienced and reputable attorney who has specific experience in handling dog bite claims and is familiar with Arizona's specific dog bite laws. Not only will consulting with a lawyer give you a better idea as to the value of your case, but a lawyer will be able to help you through every step of the complex legal process. From filing a formal claim to working with the insurance company, you'll definitely want to have an attorney on your side.
Gather as Much Documentation as Possible
Lastly, be sure to keep as much documentation as possible after the incident.
Experiencing a dog attack or dog bite can be life-changing—and not in a good way. Having the legal guidance and support you need to seek compensation for your medical bills and related expenses can make all the difference.