According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, almost 5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, and over 800,000 of them are injured seriously enough to require medical treatment. These figures exclude victims who do not see a doctor, as well as those who are left with a permanent fear of dogs but no physical scars.
Can I be held liable if my dog isn’t dangerous?
Under Florida law, a dog owner is liable if the dog was on public property, or on private property at the invitation of the owner, even if the dog has no history of aggression. (In some cases, such an “invitation” is created by law, and the fact that you were not directly invited may not bar recovery).
A Florida dog owner can protect himself from liability for attacks on his private property if he displays a sign containing the words “Bad Dog,” unless the owner is otherwise negligent or the victim is under the age of seven. Even if there was not a sign, the owner can claim that the victim’s behavior was partially responsible for the bite. If the judge agrees that there is evidence that the victim may also have been at fault, the jury can reduce the amount of the damage award by the percentage of fault attributed to the victim. (For example, if the jury decides that the victim’s damages are $100,000 but the victim was 25 percent at fault, he would collect $75,000).
If you own a dog, you should be aware that under Florida law, you might be liable even if your dog has never bitten anyone before. The Insurance Information Institute found that one-third of claims under homeowners’ and renters’ policies are for dog bites, and the average claim paid was for nearly $30,000. The dog does not even have to bite the victim for the owner to be liable; in one case, a woman was allegedly chased by a neighbor’s dog, and she fell and broke her wrist. The owner was fined and classified as a “dangerous dog” even though there was no evidence that the dog even tried to bite the victim.
A “dangerous dog” classification results in lifetime registration with the local animal control authority, and results in a long list of requirements, including that the dog be leashed and muzzled unless it is within an enclosure and that it not be transferred to another owner without notification to the animal control authorities. If the dog is involved in another alleged attack, there is a sliding scale of fines and other penalties, including euthanasia. However, unlike many other states, Florida does not have statewide breed-specific legislation that bans or restricts Florida residents from owning specific breeds.
I have been bitten, what should I do?
The most important thing is to seek medical care promptly. Dog bites can become infected because the wounds can be deep and the dog’s mouth can contain many types of bacteria. Some skin wounds are shallow but there are signs of a crush injury, because the bones and soft tissues can be damaged without regard to the depth of the bite itself. Follow the doctor’s advice and keep any follow-up appointments. It may take months until you learn that you will be left with a permanent disability. Dog bites on the hand are not uncommon, and any limit on hand function can have serious consequences.
Many dog bite victims do not consider consulting an attorney, believing that the dog’s owner does not have any money to pay a judgment or that any recovery would be less than the amount of legal fees. Most people do not realize that if the dog’s owner has a homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy, the insurer can be liable for the amount of any judgment. Also, some attorneys will advise dog bite victims without any payment up front; if the victim does collect money for their injuries, the attorney will then collect the fees and costs from the damage award.
If you have been traumatized or otherwise injured by a biting dog, you should consult with a Florida attorney who is knowledgeable about dog bite injuries. If you wait too long to act, you may lose your rights to collect for the cost of your medical bills, lost time at school or work, and other losses that were caused by someone else’s lack of care.