From kittens to canaries and puppies to pythons, we love our pets. And whether you’re the proud “parent” of a goldfish, gecko, turtle, tarantula, or tetra, you’ll probably have a rewarding relationship with your pet, free of incident.
But not all pet owners are as responsible as the rest of us, and even if they are, accidents happen. For certain pets, attacks on humans can be dangerous and, from dog bites to livestock on the loose, animal attacks can cause personal injury. Here’s what you need to know if you’ve been injured in an animal attack.
Immediately following an animal attack, you should receive medical attention as soon as possible. Even if you don’t think your injuries are serious, a medical professional might. And, this will assist you in tracking your diagnoses and medical expenses, should you want to file a lawsuit later.
Once you’re safe and sound, you may want to start documenting the incident. For instance, if you’re bitten by a dog, which is by far the most common animal injury, you may want to take photos of your injuries, the dog, and the area where the attack happened. If the dog escaped a yard, you could document whether there was a fence and if it was secured and locked. If you were bitten at a dog park, you could talk to eyewitnesses, note what they saw, and perhaps retain their contact information. All of these steps will both help you remember what happened and provide evidence of the attack.
How an animal attack claim proceeds from there will largely depend on where the attack occurred. If it happened in a public park and you believe the park authority was negligent, you may need to file a notice of claim with the city, county, or state before you can file a personal injury lawsuit. If you were attacked on someone else’s property, you may need to contact their homeowner or tenant insurance company. And if the attack occurred while you were on the clock, workers’ compensation insurance may cover your injuries.
Most animal attack claims, even those causing serious injury, are resolved quickly. But if you don’t receive a response from insurance companies or the owner of the animal involved, you may consider filing a personal injury lawsuit.
Personal Injury Lawsuits Based on Animal Attacks
Most animal-based injuries are the result of pet bites, usually from dogs. In these instances, a personal injury lawsuit will normally allege negligence on the part of the pet owner. But there are instances where animal owners will be strictly liable for injuries caused by their animals, and the injured party does not need to prove negligence.
Proving an animal owner was will often depend on the specific facts of your attack. Courts generally define negligence based on the “reasonable person standard,” or what a reasonable person would have done in the same situation. Most plaintiffs base negligence claims on someone’s unreasonable actions; in other cases, they base them on a failure to act.
In either case, an injured plaintiff alleging an animal owner’s negligence must generally prove four distinct elements:
As an example, if a dog owner knew their dog had bitten people before and either let it run off-leash in a park or failed to keep the dog inside or in a fenced-in yard, they would be held liable if the dog bit someone again.
In some cases, an injured party does not need to prove negligence to hold an animal owner liable for injuries stemming from an attack. “Dog-bite” laws can vary widely from state to state, and some states have strict liability statutes for dog bites, meaning that you only need to prove that the other person owned the dog and that the dog bit you. Additionally, if the owner knows or has reason to know that the particular animal has a dangerous propensity, the owner is strictly liable.
Most states also apply strict liability to wild animal owners. The law generally defines wild animals as those not customarily kept in the service of humankind, like tigers, alligators, and some species of snakes. Owners of wild animals are strictly liable for injuries arising from that animal’s dangerous propensities, regardless of negligence. So, even if the owner of a tiger took every precaution and the animal bit someone anyway, that owner would still owe damages.
Even if an animal owner appears to be liable under one of the legal theories above, they may still have a defense that keeps them from compensating injured parties or reduces that compensation.
In some cases, the court will examine the injured party’s actions as well. In states that use a “comparative negligence” model, the plaintiff’s negligence would diminish how much they could recover for their injuries.
For example, if someone were constantly pulling a cat’s tail before the cat finally lashed out, a court could find that their negligence contributed to the attack, and they would receive reduced damages in proportion to their negligence. Contributory negligence, however, is not a bar to recovery in strict liability cases. So, if someone was pulling on a tiger’s tail before being bitten, the tiger’s owner would likely still be on the hook for the full extent of the injuries.
Finally, a legal theory called “assumption of the risk” completely bars an injured party from recovering damages in certain animal injury cases. So, if you decide to ride a bull at a rodeo, you probably can’t sue the bull’s owner if it bucks you off and gores you.
Most animal owners are not liable for injuries caused by their animals to trespassers. As an example, if you’re trampled by a cow while crossing the owner’s field without permission, you can’t collect damages.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, however. Some jurisdictions have “vicious watchdog” statutes that hold owners liable for injuries, even to trespassers, if they know their dog has vicious propensities. In other jurisdictions, trespassers have no such protection.
Some states also have what is known as a “one bite rule” when it comes to dogs. As with negligence and vicious propensity discussed above, the rule is based on the idea that a dog owner would have had no reason to suspect their pet was dangerous if it had never bitten a person or another dog before.
Therefore, dog owners are not held liable for injuries stemming from first-time dog bites. One way to think about this rule is that every dog gets “one free bite.” Another way of thinking about is that, after the first bite, the owner is now on notice and should take proper precautions from it happening again.
Between medical experts testifying about injuries and healthcare expenses to animal expert testimony regarding training and restraint techniques, a personal injury lawsuit based on an animal attack can be extremely complex. And even if the animal owner or their insurance company wants to settle your case, signing any agreement without first consulting an attorney is risky.
There’s a good chance that the other party will have legal representation, so why not have a personal injury lawyer with experience in animal attacks on your side? It is the best way to protect your legal rights.
Injuries cost money, including time away from work, medical bills, and other complications. Before taking legal action or trying to negotiate a settlement on your own, you should talk to an attorney about your case. You can search LawInfo’s legal directory to find a local animal attack attorney to discuss the merits of your case. This one step can level the playing field, help you protect your rights, and put you in the best position for recovering the compensation that you deserve.
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