With all the pet dogs in U.S. households, it’s no surprise that more than 800,000 Americans get medical treatment for dog bites every year. And that number doesn’t include other kinds of injuries, like when a dog knocks someone over or causes an accident by chasing a motorcycle. Depending on the circumstances and the relevant laws, dog owners are generally liable if their pets hurt someone. That means the owners (or their insurance companies) may have to pay the victims for the harm they suffered (or “damages”). Those damages could include:
Victims may see their total compensation reduced if they share some of the blame for their injuries, depending on the state, the legal theory supporting the lawsuit, and the individual circumstances. (See more on when dog-bite victims are partly at fault.)
The most obvious expenses resulting from dog-inflicted injuries are medical costs, including bills for doctors and hospital services, medication, physical therapy, and any necessary psychological treatment.
If the injury aggravates a victim's pre-existing medical condition, the final tab may be much more than you might expect. 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. For example, say a dog knocks over an elderly person with a bad back. The fall might not be serious for someone who’s younger and healthier, but it could lead to surgery in this situation because it exacerbated the victim’s back condition. The dog’s owner will be responsible for the actual medical bills, rather than what it would cost if the victim were healthy.
There’s often pain associated with injuries from a dog bite or mauling—physical pain as well as mental or emotional suffering. Emotional distress can result from the physical pain and extensive medical procedures. It can also come from the trauma of the attack itself. Victims may experience debilitating fear of dogs (which in turn can makes it hard to go outside), anxiety, shock, sleeplessness, depression, and other psychological symptoms. In extreme cases, they may even develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When the pain and emotional problems are expected to continue, a victim may also get an award (or an amount in a settlement) for future pain and suffering.
How do you put a fair dollar amount on pain and suffering? It can be hard, but jurors do it all the time. So do lawyers and insurance companies when they’re negotiating a settlement. Still, the amounts that victims receive for pain and suffering vary tremendously. Sometimes, judges will set aside a jury’s award as excessive if it's not reasonable under the circumstances.
Here are some factors that may affect how much a victim receives, either from a settlement with an insurance company or at trial:
When victims have to take time off from work for medical diagnosis, treatment, or recuperation, they’re entitled to reimbursement for any lost income. If the injury will impair their ability to work in the future, they should also be compensated for that future income (referred to as a “loss in earning capacity”).
If the injuries had an impact on the relationship between dog-bite victims and their spouses, they may receive compensation for “loss of consortium,” which includes lost companionship or intimacy. Some states also allow compensation for the impact on the relationship between a parent and child when one of them is injured.
Under the “dangerous-dog laws” in some states, cities, and counties, the owner of a dog that’s been declared dangerous or vicious may have to pay double or triple damages if the dog goes on to injure someone. More general dog-bite statutes may also make the owner liable for multiple damages when a dog that has previously bitten someone does it again (see Wis. Stat. Ann. § 174.02(1)(b)).
An owner whose conduct was particularly reckless or outrageous—for example, repeatedly letting an vicious dog run loose—may be punished by having to pay an extra amount, over and above the amount needed to compensate the victim. These “punitive” or “exemplary” damages are meant to hurt financially and to send a strong message in order to prevent similar behavior in the future.
Punitive damages may not be allowed if the victim is suing the owner under a state’s “strict liability” dog-bite statute, because those laws make dog owners liable for bites regardless of the animals’ history or the owners’ carelessness. (See Beckett v. Warren, 921 N.E.2d 624 (Ohio 2010).)