Compensating Someone Bitten by a Dog

Someone whose dog injures another may be responsible for the person's:

  • medical bills
  • lost income
  • pain and suffering, and
  • property damage.

If the dog has injured someone before, or the owner's conduct was particularly outrageous (letting a dog known to be dangerous run loose, for example), the owner may also be liable for:

  • double or triple damages (in some states), or
  • punitive damages (damages meant to punish the dog's owner for misconduct).

Medical Bills

The most obvious expenses of dog-inflicted injuries are medical bills. They include all costs that are a result of the injury, which can include bills for doctors (including specialists such as plastic surgeons) and hospital services, medication, physical therapy and, in some cases, visits to a counselor or psychiatrist.

If the injury aggravates a victim's pre-existing medical condition, the final tab may be much more than would be expected from the dog-inflicted injury alone. The common legal rule is that if you hurt someone, you are responsible for all injuries that flow from your action, even if those injuries are made worse by some condition the victim already had.

EXAMPLE: Muffy the Lhasa Apso trips Leonard, an elderly visitor to her owner's house. The fall wouldn't be serious for a healthier person, but Leonard's back has been in bad shape for years, and the fall puts him in the hospital. That means some big medical bills for Muffy's owner, who can't get away with paying only for what the injury would have cost a normally healthy victim.

Lost Income

If someone injured by a dog must take time off from work, for medical diagnosis, treatment, or recuperation, the dog's owner must reimburse the injured person for any lost income. If the injury will impair the injured person's ability to work in the future, that loss in earning capacity must also be compensated.

Pain and Suffering

The pain that an injured person suffers is very real—but it's very hard to put a dollar value on it. Jurors do it, and so do lawyers who are trying to settle a lawsuit before it gets to the jury, but the amounts injured people receive vary tremendously. Some states have limited the amounts that can be awarded for pain and suffering, but the limits are too high to affect most dog-bite cases.

Here are some factors that may affect how much a victim receives, either from a settlement with an insurance company or at trial:

  • A common way to get a figure for pain and suffering is to multiply the amount of actual medical damages by two to four.
  • A child may suffer more from a dog bite than an adult. The child may, for example, become terrified of dogs or have recurring nightmares.
  • If a dog wasn't vaccinated for rabies, the person it bit will spend at least a few anxious days wondering if the dog (which is probably quarantined) is going to start showing symptoms of the fatal disease. A jury may compensate the person for that suffering.
  • If the injury was caused by a completely unprovoked attack, a sympathetic jury is likely to award more money to the victim. The same goes for injuries caused by breeds commonly viewed as unpredictable, such as Dobermans or pit bulls.

Loss of Services

A few states allow spouses or close relatives of an injured person to sue for loss of the person's services. It's hard to pin down what these services are, but they don't necessarily have to be economic; they may refer to companionship. For example, a New York woman whose nine-year-old son was bitten by a dog sued for the loss of his services, and was awarded $4,500. (Graham ex rel. Graham v. Murphy, 525 N.Y.S.2d 414 (1988).)

Multiple Damages

Some dog-bite statutes allow an injured person to collect double or triple damages if the dog has bitten someone before. And if a dog has been officially labeled "dangerous" under local or state law because of its prior behavior, the victim is probably entitled to multiple damages.

Punitive Damages

An owner whose conduct was truly outrageous—for example, repeatedly letting a dog known to be dangerous run loose—may be punished by having to pay an extra amount, over and above the amount needed to compensate the victim. A jury is free to base these "punitive damages" on the wealth of the person being punished. For example, to make a big company feel some pain, it must be stung with a bigger verdict than would be assessed against the average person.

If, however, a jury gives an injured person an unrealistically huge amount of money, a judge (in the trial court, or an appellate court if the verdict is appealed) may reduce the amount. For example, a New York woman who had been bitten on the arm by a dog received a $240,000 verdict from a jury. Her husband also got $70,000 for loss of his wife's services. The dog owner appealed the decision, and an appeals court ruled that the damage awards were excessive. After all, the court said, the injury consisted of only a bite that healed quickly and left a faint scar. The court discounted testimony that the woman had developed a dog phobia after the bite, and ordered a new trial on the amount of money she should get. (Fontecchio v. Esposito, 485 N.Y.S.2d 113 (1985).)

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