Taking a Dog-Bite Case to Small Claims Court

Most dog-bite disputes are settled through negotiations between the injured person and the dog owner or insurance company, but some proceed to small claims court. Here's how a typical case might unfold.

By , J.D. | Updated by Charles Crain, Attorney

If you've been bitten by a dog your immediate concerns are your safety and your health. But you'll also need to decide how to seek compensation for any medical bills and other losses or harm resulting from the incident. Most dog-bite disputes are resolved through negotiations between the injured person and either the dog owner or the dog owner's insurance company. But if you're unable to reach a fair agreement with the dog owner you may be able to take your case to small claims court.

In this article we'll explore the steps you should take after a dog bite incident and when it might make sense to seek compensation in small claims court.

What Should You Do Right After a Dog Bite?

The immediate aftermath of a dog-bite incident may be confusing, chaotic, and even dangerous, and the right things to do will depend on the situation. Of course, safety and receiving necessary medical attention will be your first priorities.

If you feel safe and comfortable staying at the scene, and are able to have a conversation with the dog owner, you should also get information that will help with any medical treatment and with seeking compensation. This includes the owner's name and contact information, along with the dog's name and vaccination details.

Depending on where you live, you may be required to report a dog bite to local authorities. And, even if you don't want the police to come to the scene, you may also want to call the local law enforcement agency's non-emergency number to create a record of the incident.

How to Seek Compensation After a Dog Bite

Once you've received medical treatment and gained an understanding of how you've been impacted by the dog bite, you can turn to seeking compensation. You might even be able to receive a financial recovery for all your bite-related losses (called "damages" in the language of the law) without the cost and hassle of a lawsuit.

For example, if the dog's owner has homeowner or rental insurance, your damages might be covered by their policy.

If they don't have insurance, or your damages exceed the value of their coverage, you can ask the owner to compensate you voluntarily before filing a lawsuit. Depending on how comfortable you are dealing directly with the owner, you can choose to do this yourself or hire an attorney to negotiate on your behalf.

Whether you do it yourself or work with an attorney, it will be helpful to communicate with the dog owner in writing. This can be anything from an email to a formal demand letter (one advantage of sending a physical letter is that you can send it certified mail, which creates a record that it reached its intended recipient). Whatever form this correspondence takes, it should include:

  • a summary of what happened
  • a complete list of the costs (financial and otherwise) you incurred because of the incident
  • the amount of money you're asking for as a settlement, and
  • a deadline for the dog owner to respond to your request.

What else you say in your letter will depend on the situation and on the approach you (or you and your lawyer) decide to take. For example, it may be helpful to explain why you think the other person is responsible under state law. We'll discuss legal responsibility for dog bites a bit later on

What happens next will depend on how the owner responds to your letter—it could be anything from agreeing to pay what you ask, to denying all responsibility. Often the response will be something in between, and you'll have to see how far you can get through negotiations.

What You Should Know Before Filing a Dog-Bite Lawsuit

The basic facts you'll need to prove in any dog-bite case include:

  • you were bitten by the dog
  • the dog belonged to the person you're suing, and
  • you suffered damages as a result of the bite.

Beyond that, each state makes its own laws covering dog bites (and other injuries caused by animals). So it's important to understand the specific rules that will apply to your case if you decide to file a lawsuit.

One of the crucial differences among states is how they handle liability. Depending on the state, liability in your case might be decided using:

  • A negligence standard. You'll have to show that you were injured because the dog owner failed in their duty to control their dog.
  • A strict liability standard. You'll just have to show that you were bitten by the owner's dog—there's no requirement to show that the owner was careless or irresponsible.
  • The one-bite rule. You'll have to show that the dog owner knew—or should have known—that their dog was likely to bite (or cause whatever injury you suffered).

Learn more about the different liability standards that can apply in dog-bite cases.

Before filing a lawsuit you (and your lawyer, if you hire one) should think about what kinds of facts and legal arguments the dog owner might raise in their defense. Depending on what happened, and your state's dog-bite law, the owner might argue:

  • You bear some or all of the responsibility because you did something like provoke or frighten the dog.
  • You were trespassing at the time of the bite.
  • Your claimed damages are too high—for example, because you took unnecessary time off work or are exaggerating your pain and suffering.
  • Depending on a state's liability standard, a defendant might also want to argue that they weren't negligent, or that they didn't know that their dog might be dangerous.

Should You Take Your Dog-Bite Case to Small Claims Court?

After examining the facts, your state's dog-bite law, and potential defenses the dog owner might raise, you'll be in a good position to decide if a lawsuit makes sense. If it does, your best option may be to take your case to small claims court.

One advantage of going to small claims court is that it's designed to be less time-consuming and complicated than a standard lawsuit. That means plaintiffs in small claims court can be more comfortable representing themselves, instead of hiring a lawyer to navigate the process. You'll also be presenting your case directly to a judge, and won't have to worry about convincing a jury.

Remember to look up the specific small claims court rules for your state, including how much money can be at stake and still be considered a "small claim." In most states the limit is somewhere between a few thousand dollars and about $15,000.

It's also crucial that you know the relevant statute of limitations for your case. Each state requires plaintiffs to file a lawsuit within a certain amount of time after the incident they're suing over.

While the differences are important, many of the key steps in small claims court are the same as they are in any civil case:

  • First you'll have to get the case started by serving the complaint on the defendant.
  • Then, you'll have to present your evidence in court.
  • If you get a judgment in your favor and the dog owner is ordered to pay for all or part of your damages, you'll also need to make sure the defendant actually pays you. This is your responsibility, not the court's, so it's important to be prepared and understand how to collect your money.

Getting Help With Your Dog-Bite Case

If you've been injured by an animal—or someone is claiming that your pet injured them—you can learn more about the laws covering dog bites and other injuries. You can also get help with preparing a case for small claims court, or get in touch with an attorney using the features on this page.

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