October 29, 2016

By: Peter M. Hileman, Esq.

If you, or a family member, have been bitten by a dog, you may be entitled to recover money to compensate you for your injuries. But the fact that a dog bit you doesn’t automatically make the dog’s owner liable for your injuries. To be eligible for damages, you must be able to prove that the owner was negligent or otherwise “at fault.” At Drake, Hileman & Davis, there are two ways we do this:

1. By proving the dog’s “dangerous propensities.”

At one time, all Pennsylvania dog bite cases were subject to the “one bite rule.” It was presumed that all dogs (who are, after all, “man’s best friend”) are safe until proven dangerous. The dog got “one free bite.” That first bite then put the owner “on notice” of the dog’s vicious propensities, and obligated him to confine the dog. The dog’s second victim had a case, but the first victim was out of luck.

The one bite rule has changed. Today, the plaintiff need to only prove that the dog’s owner knew that his dog had “dangerous or vicious propensities.” A prior bite is still sufficient proof of such knowledge. But now, even a first bite may give rise to a valid claim if any of the following apply:

  1. Mauling. If the “first bite” involves a ferocious mauling and serious injuries, a jury may reasonably conclude that the owner knew the dog had vicious propensities, even if the plaintiff cannot actually prove prior bad behavior.
  2. Prior bad behavior. Some dogs consistently behave in a threatening or vicious manner such as growling or lunging at people, baring teeth, or barking ferociously at strangers or passersby. If the plaintiff can prove a pattern of prior bad behavior, the court may conclude that the dog’s owner knew of the dog’s vicious propensities, even if the dog never bit before.
  3. Attack breeds. Certain breeds, such as pit bull, Rottweiler, Doberman pinscher, German shepherd and Husky, have been bred as attack dogs. They are generally recognized to be potentially vicious by nature. Accordingly, the owner of such a dog must exercise a greater degree of control over his dog, and may be liable for the first bite.

2. By proving the owner violated the dog law.

Under Pennsylvania’s leash law, every dog owner has a duty to keep his dog confined to his property or on a leash if it is off its property. So, if the dog was not on the owner’s property when the bite occurred, the owner will be found to be “strictly” liable (even for a “first bite”).

The following factors make dog bite cases difficult, special and unique:

First, dog bite cases require legal help. They are not “do-it-yourself” projects. You should consult an attorney promptly to have any chance of a reasonable settlement or award. You may be reluctant to contact an attorney about your case because you may not want to offend the dog’s owner. Like many dog bite victims, you may know the owner of the dog that bit you. We have helped clients to both effectively pursue their claims and, through good communication and education, maintain a positive relationship with the dog’s owner.

Second, dog bite cases are extremely fact-sensitive. The factual background of a dog bite should be investigated and analyzed as soon as possible after the bite occurs, preferably by a professional investigator. It is difficult to gather evidence of a dog’s “prior history.”

Third, many jurors are dog owners, and thus tend to sympathize with the defendant. It takes a skilled and experienced lawyer to effectively try a dog bite case without alienating the jury. We do this by persuading the jury that the dog that attacked you is not like their dog. The dog that bit you was an obvious menace; their dog, of course, is “man’s best friend.”

Fourth, injures from dog bites often involve scarring that may require plastic surgery. Plastic surgery for facial bites to children may need to be postponed until they are grown. Damages in such cases can be substantial, and care must be taken to obtain an award that takes future care and damages into account. The involvement of competent physicians is crucial.

Fifth, even if the bite happened many years ago, if the victim was a minor when the bite occurred, the child may still bring a claim until he or she turns 20! The statute of limitations is tolled for minors.

Drake, Hileman & Davis has been winning dog bite cases for over 30 years. Contact us today for a free case evaluation and consultation.