Taking a Dog Bite Case to Small Claims Court

Most dog-bite disputes never get to court; they're settled by negotiations between the injured person and the dog owner or insurance company. You don't want to get embroiled in a lawsuit if you can help it; the time and expense are mind-boggling.

If you've been injured by a dog, contact the dog's owner. Write a letter setting out what happened—even though the owner may know the facts as well as you do. Include an itemized list of your expenses, and mention any local or state dog-bite laws. Give a deadline for payment—that's a good incentive for the owner. And stress that if you don't work something out by then, you'll file a small claims (or other) court case. It's also a good idea to mention that homeowner's insurance may cover the cost; many dog owners may not realize that.

If you do have to go to court, use small claims court if your losses aren't too large. In many states, you can sue for up to $10,000 in small claims court. The best way to show how small claims court works is to follow a hypothetical case from beginning to end. Here is how a typical case might unfold:

One Sunday morning, Jake was jogging along a dirt trail when he met two women and a dog. Because the women and the dog took up most of the center of the road, Jake moved to the far right edge. Then, noticing that the dog was on a long leash, he moved off the path into the ditch.

As it turned out, Jake didn't go quite far enough. The dog lunged for him and bit his ankle before the woman holding the leash could restrain him.

Jake yelled in pain, the woman hauled the dog back to the other side of the road, and her friend went to see how bad the bite was. Before Jake hobbled off to see a doctor, his ankle bleeding, he got the name and phone number of the dog's owner, Allison Finley, and of her friend, Kathleen Huxley.

Because it was Sunday morning, Jake had to go to a hospital emergency room to see a doctor. After he sat an hour in the waiting room, a doctor stitched up the bite and gave him some painkillers and orders to stay off the leg for a few days. Jake spent the rest of the day restless and uncomfortable. He didn't sleep well that night, and decided not to try to go to work on Monday. Tuesday morning, he saw his regular doctor, who pronounced the wound "healing nicely." That afternoon he limped back to work.

Meanwhile, Jake contacted officials at the county animal control department, notifying them of the incident and confirming that the dog was properly licensed and vaccinated for rabies. Jake consoled himself with the thought that at least he wouldn't start foaming at the mouth. After a few weeks, he could jog again without pain, although his fear of encountering the beast again prompted him to choose a new route. Jake decided it was time to add up his costs and demand payment from Allison Finley.

Looking Up the Law

First, however, he decided to check on California law to see just what he was entitled to. Looking up "Dogs" in the California code (the state statutes, available online) gave him a long list of laws. The most promising was under "Bite, liability of owner." Jake turned to the statute.

It read, in part: "The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place … regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner's knowledge of such viciousness."

Reading the statute closely told Jake he had to prove:

  • Allison Finley owned the dog
  • the dog bit him
  • he was in a public place when bitten, and
  • he suffered damages as a result.

Piece of cake, Jake thought. Allison couldn't even argue about anything but the amount of the damages. And as far as Jake could tell, she didn't have any defenses to make—nobody could say, Jake was sure, that by jogging along minding his own business he had provoked the dog into biting him.

Choosing a Strategy

If your state doesn't have a dog-bite statute, or if it doesn't apply in your situation, you may be able to sue under the common law rule or a negligence theory, discussed above.

To win under a common law (one free bite) rule, you must prove that the owner knew (or should have known) that the dog was likely to cause the kind of injury suffered.

The third option, trying to prove a dog owner was negligent, is usually desirable only if there's no dog-bite statute to sue under, and it doesn't look possible to prove, on a common law theory, that the dog's owner knew the dog was dangerous.

In some states, time limits on filing lawsuits may differ depending on the theory of the lawsuit. For example, in Arizona, lawsuits under the dog-bite statute must be filed within one year of the incident. But an injured person who sues under a common law theory has two years to file a case.

Negotiating

To decide on how much to ask Allison for, Jake first added up his out-of-pocket costs, which looked like this:

Hospital emergency room $260

Doctor visits $200

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