It has always been a smart idea to keep proper control of your dog both indoors and outside the home, but new developments in the law now make that good habit a vital aspect of personal responsibility. In the past a minor dog (or cat) bite might have resulted in an argument with a neighbor or a small cash settlement with a stranger. Recent cases and legislation, however, mean that these sorts of bites can have serious financial consequences for a pet owner.

What’s the big deal about animals biting people and other animals? Isn’t it just a quick trip to the walk-in clinic along with a corresponding apology? That thinking is sooo outdated. In today’s world of litigious folks, aggressive attorneys and new theories of recovery, there is real money available to animal bite victims and their legal counsel. And many people out there are ready and willing to take advantage of that unexpected cash. So how should you protect yourself? What is the best route to follow should your pet bite one of your guests or run off and nip an innocent bystander?

Trade Detailed Identification Information

Once your dog has bitten the person or pet of another, there is no point in trying to avoid responsibility. Instead, stepping up and demonstrating genuine compassion for the injured party is a much more effective strategy. First, it is simply the right thing to do. Second, it is the best legal strategy.

Bite cases frequently lead to personal injury trials and/or insurance settlements. If evidence emerges that the dog owner deliberately tried to stonewall the victim’s request for his identity or that he simply walked away from the scene, his insurance company may end up having to pay even more. Should a trial ensue, such evidence looks terrible; juries get very generous when they hear proof that a dog owner tried to “leave the scene of the accident.”

Contact Your Insurance Agent Immediately

Many homeowner insurance policies and some renter’s insurance policies cover dog bite claims up to certain limits. If the injuries involved are minor, a policyholder may or may not decide to make an insurance claim for monies owed to a bite victim. But keep in mind that if an insured individual fails to report the incident to his agent in a timely fashion, he may later be unable to receive reimbursement or even make a belated claim.

If your dog bites someone and you notify your insurance agent right away, he can advise you of any policy-related time limitations. If the bite turns out to be very minor, (for example, costs less than your deductible) you can decide to pay money “out-of-pocket” and skip the insurance paperwork (with the possible subsequent increase in your premium).

But if you do not notify your insurance agent or insurance carrier of the event, you may be out of luck when a minor skin injury turns into a horrific nonhealing wound because the victim happened to be diabetic, immune-suppressed, or allergic to antibiotics.

Dog Attack

Encourage Medical Attention

As the owner of a dog who bites an innocent person, you have a vested interest in that person recovering from the bite as quickly and as completely as possible. What you do not want is for a simple bite to turn into a medical catastrophe if not treated appropriately and rapidly. If the victim admits that he won’t seek professional medical attention (perhaps because of a lack of health insurance), you should contact your insurance company and your lawyer immediately. They may or may not consider suggesting that you somehow contribute financially to permit quick treatment of the injury, depending on circumstances.

Consider Getting a Police Report

Though it may seem counterintuitive, calling the police to take an accident report at the scene of a dog bite can be a good idea. Realistically, an owner of a biting pet should and inevitably will be held legally and financially accountable for the attack. But the animal’s owner should not have to pay any more than what is legally owed. In today’s “get something for nothing” world, it is not uncommon for persons injured on the job or in an accident to try to “milk” the injury into an unjustifiably large settlement or a long period of “disability” payments.

An on-site police report can actually be helpful and keep a victim from successfully claiming injuries and complications that could not possibly have been a result of the dog bite. It also proves that the dog owner stayed around to make sure that the victim’s medical needs were documented.

Maintain Available Vaccination Records

It is bad enough having your dog bite a member of the public. It’s even worse to end up with your dog getting arrested and hauled off to the doggie lockup because you can’t get your hands on proof of vaccination.

And heaven forbid your dog should bite somebody, say, on the Friday of a Monday holiday weekend: If you personally possess no rabies vaccination proof and your veterinarian and town clerk are closed for the long holiday, you don’t even want to imagine the liability should the victim have to begin antirabies therapy as a result of your negligence.

Offer to Pay Directly for Care

In today’s bad economy, not every pet owner has the up-front cash to have his pet cared for immediately after a serious attack by someone else’s dog. And if the injured pet’s owner takes her animal to a veterinary clinic, that office probably won’t be willing to accept a vague promise by an owner that “someone else” is responsible for necessary emergency surgery.

Therefore, it is good policy to advise the owner of any animal attacked by your dog that you have a cell phone number and a credit card available to any veterinarian who agrees to perform emergency care on the victim animal. Never give out your credit card information to the pet owner; instead provide appropriate identification and the assurance that you will pay for reasonable treatment at a nearby veterinary hospital once that office calls to explain what care needs to be done.

Be Aware of New Theories of Liability

Some dog owners believe that they don’t really have too much to worry about if their dog has an inclination to bite. For example, if the dog is a small breed, they may not think anybody could be injured very much by his tiny little chompers. Some owners don’t worry because their dog never bites people, though she does tend to be aggressive toward other dogs and cats.

Here is a bit of important legal news for such “pet owners in denial”: New legislation and court decisions have broadly expanded the liability of owners of biting dogs. Some courts also have been awarding noneconomic damages to dog bite victims, (so-called “pain and suffering” awards) which can go well beyond the payment of lost wages and medical care attributable to the bite.

More recently, some courts and legislatures are allowing legal claims by spouses of injured victims for bite-related expenses such as days taken off from work to drive a wife to doctor visits. There are even courts that are considering claims by pet owners for pain suffered by their pets when they are bitten by a dog belonging to someone else. Finally, some states are allowing owners of pets maimed or killed by somebody else’s dog to recover for the pet owner’s sadness, angst and emotional distress allegedly resulting from injuries or death of their beloved pet.

Remember: Limit Your Liability

Trust me, as a practicing lawyer and veterinarian for over 25 years, I can tell you that jury verdicts based on these sorts of legal theories have the potential to add up to much more than your homeowner’s policy or your rainy-day fund can pay. Do everything you can to keep your pet from being in a situation where he could bite someone else or another pet. If the worst does happen, take all necessary steps to do the right thing as well as to limit your potential liability.

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