Understanding Personal Injury Laws Governing Dog Bite Injuries

Personal Injury Laws with Lawyer Referral Service of Central TexasInformation collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that approximately 4.5 million dog bite injuries are reported in the United States every year. One out of five dog bite incidents requires medical attention for bite wounds and to prevent dangerous infections for the victim. Children and the elderly are more likely to suffer injuries from a dog bite attack, with children between the ages of 5-9 at the greatest risk. Dog bite injuries can vary from a minor scrape to severe impairment and wrongful death in the most extreme cases.

The injured victim of dog bite has the right to claim just compensation from the dog owner, if the dog involved is an established pet. In most dog bite injury cases, the pet owner’s homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy covers the victim’s expenses, but laws vary by state about how liability is determined.

This post will discuss the legal basis for dog bite injury claims in Texas as well as some of the complexities that dog bite injury cases involve.

Applicable Laws

Strict Statutory Liability vs. The One-Bite Rule

In states that have passed strict liability statutes for dog bites, the dog owner is automatically liable for any injury or damage to property caused by his or her dog. The basic elements of statutory liability are (a) the dog bit the plaintiff, and (b) the defendant owned the dog at the time of the bite. In cases of joint or co-ownership of the offending canine, liability usually extends to all owners of the dog. Trespassing on the part of the injured party might be a defense against this type of liability for the dog owner, but the dog owner will be held liable in most cases.

The one-bite rule, on the other hand, requires the victim to prove that the dog owner knew that his or her dog was dangerous and was capable of inflicting the personal injury or property damage. Proof the dog was dangerous might be in the form of a documented prior bite or other aggressive conduct like excessive barking, snarling, or lunging. Thirty states, as well as Washington D.C., have moved away from the one-bite standard of liability towards laws defining more strict liability for dog owners. Texas uses the one-bite rule except in cases where a dog owner’s negligence makes them liable even without prior knowledge of the dog’s aggression. A personal injury lawyer plays a crucial role in gathering and presenting evidence to show prior knowledge of aggression or negligence on the part of the dog owner.

Generally in Texas to recover compensation a victim must prove that defendant owned the dog in question or the premises where the dog was held, that the dog in question had abnormally dangerous propensities, that the owner knew or should have known of the propensities, and that the dog caused harm to the victim.

Negligence Laws

The negligence law is applicable in cases where the dog owner’s negligence or carelessness led to the dog causing the injury. When a dog owner has failed to maintain reasonable control of a dog prior to a dog bite attack, negligence laws often determine liability. Many municipalities have animal control laws such as requiring dogs to be leashed, prohibitions against dogs running at large, and prohibitions against dogs trespassing. Negligence could also apply to a dog attack intentionally directed by an owner when trespassing or self-defense does not apply.

Claims Against Landlords for Damages Caused by Dogs Owned By Their Tenants

In some cases it may be possible to make a claim against a landlord, land owner, or premises manager for a bite from a dog owned by a tenant. To make such a claim the injured party would need to prove that the landlord knew that the dog was dangerous and had a right to take steps to protect the public but failed to do so. Sometimes it can be helpful to prove that the landlord or premises manager failed to fix a fence or let the dog out accidentally.

Wrongful Death and Criminal Penalties

Though in most dog bite injury cases dog owners are simply required to pay for the injuries, there have been cases where the owners have been found liable for wrongful death of a dog bite victim. Negligent dog owners have also been convicted of criminal penalties up to and including murder for their dogs’ aggression during an intentional assault or negligent attack. Marjorie Knoller, for instance, was the first person in the history of the United States to be convicted of murder in a dog bite injury case. She received a sentence of 15 years for second-degree murder while her husband and codefendant Robert Noel received 4 years for involuntary manslaughter after the brutal death of a neighbor. The victim, Diane Whipple, was killed in her hallway by two large Presa Canario dogs owned by Knoller and Noel.

In Texas under the Dangerous Dog Act a person can be charged with a Class C misdemeanor if their dog makes an unprovoked on someone outside the dog’s enclosure which causes personal injuries. The level of crime rises to a third-degree felony if the attack leads to death.

It is also possible under the Dangerous Dog Act to obtain a court order for the dog in question to be seized and destroyed.

Homeowners and Renters Insurance

Injury claims and property damage claims made against liable dog owners are generally covered by the dog owner’s homeowners or renter’s insurance policy. These policies usually have claim limits written into the coverage and might have restrictions about which dog breeds might be covered.

“Aggressive Breeds” and “Dangerous Dogs”

While some insurers do not ask for the breed of a dog before issuing or renewing insurance, there are companies that don’t provide coverage for dog breeds such as Rottweilers and American Pit Bull Terriers. In cases of increased risk where there are aggressive dog breeds involved, or there has been a previous case of dog-bite, the insurers may charge a higher premium from the dog owner. Some companies have a pre-condition wherein they require the dog to be trained to reduce aggression, or to be restrained in a manner that would prevent any dog injury incidents. An owner of a previously aggressive dog might have to register the dog with his or her municipality so other residents can be aware of the dog’s location.

Claim Limits

The typical dog bite liability limits covered under the homeowners and renters insurance policies are in the range of $100,000 to $300,000. In cases where the claim amount is more than the liability insurance limit, the owner is liable to pay the amount over and above the limit.

Damages Available to Victims

The injured party can recover damages for any medical care including rabies testing and other medical expenses, disfigurement damages for any scarring or change of appearance, damages for pain and suffering and mental anguish, damages for physical impairment, and lost wages.

Possible Defenses Against Dog Bite Claims

Generally, dog bite claims can be subject to the following defenses: (1) the victim provoked the dog, (2) the victim was trespassing at the time of the dog bite, (3) the victim was committing a crime against the dog owner, (4) the victim assumed the risk of being bitten, this would apply to canine professionals who work with animals on a regular basis and finally (5) the dog in questions was a police or military dog who was in the course and scope its work.

Statute of Limitations for a Dog Bite Case

In Texas the victim of a dog bite or dog attack has two years from the date of the attack or bite to bring a claim. If a claim is not settled or a lawsuit filed with two years the claim may be barred by the passing of time and no recovery permitted to the victim.

Need Help with a Dog Bite Injury Case?

Whether you are a victim of a dog bite injury seeking fair compensation or a dog owner intending to limit your liability in a dog injury claim case, it is essential to consult a personal injury lawyer. An experienced personal injury attorney can provide valuable assistance establishing liability in order to provide a just resolution for dog bite victims. For a free consultation from a reputable personal injury lawyer, call Lawyer Referral Services (LRS) at 512-472-8303, toll-free at 866-303-8303, or simply fill out our quick contact form.

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