A recent Insurance Journal reported that dog bite claims have been increasing, costing the insurance industry over $412 million in 2009, with at least half of those claims occurring on the dog owner’s property. Dog Bite Claims Top $400M in 2009; Rise 30% in Last 6 Years.
Some of their statistics are enough to make you scratch your head and ask, “is it worth it to have a dog?”.
• More than 4.7 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs annually, and nearly 900,000 of those, half of them children, require medical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
• Of those injured, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency department and about 16 die.
• The rate of dog bite related injuries is highest for children aged five to nine years old.
• Almost two-thirds of these injuries among children ages four years and younger are to the head or neck region. Injury rates in children are significantly higher for boys than for girls.
What happens if there is an injury at your home; can you be sued and be held responsible? Take the case of “Fido”, a 75 pound Doberman mix, typically locked up when guests come over. His owner lets him out in the back yard with a secure fence. Neighborhood kids have been told to stay away from and the owners posted a “Beware of Dog” sign on the gate. These are reasonable steps, aren’t they? At the same time Fido is in the fenced yard, children are playing around the outside of the fence and Fido very excited and agitated. He begins to bark and one of the kid sticks his face through the fence to see what is going on. Why? He is a 9 year old boy! He gets bit and now his parents are calling upon you to pay up. Should you?
The answer is…it depends. It depends upon the state you live in. States vary widely and it can get confusing. Check with an attorney or online resources that have overviews of the law that might apply in your state. Some sites have independent information that is free of charge.
Indiana, where I live, follows a variation of the “one bite rule”. An owner is not held liable for the first bite the dog inflicts but once the dog has demonstrated vicious behavior or a "vicious propensity," the owner can be held liable. There is an exception, though, and that is that even if the dog has no history of biting or showing viscous propensities, the knowledge that the dog is dangerous can be inferred if the “propensities of the class” to which the dog belongs are the kind that one might reasonably expect would cause injury or, in other words, a viscous breed. If your dog is one of those breeds, you as the owner must use reasonable care to prevent injuries from occurring. Unlike with wild animals, liability is based upon negligence and not strict liability.
So in Fido’s case, when the Indiana homeowner received a letter from the attorney representing the boy and his parents demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for the dog bite, should he be worried? Fido had never hurt a soul in all of his dog years so the next question is whether a Doberman “mix” is a viscous breed? If he is, did the homeowner take reasonable steps to prevent his dog from injuring this boy? The fact that he had a securely fenced-in yard, verbal warnings were given to the neighborhood kids to “stay away”, and a posted sign was on the fence…those seem reasonable to me. But reasonable minds can differ and it is always a factually sensitive question. Bottom line: ask questions, dig around, and don’t just roll over and pay.