No question, dogs can be frustrating, especially to people who don't own dogs. As a result, lots of dog-related cases end up in small claims court. Because many of these involve neighbors who will benefit by maintaining or establishing a pleasant relationship, trying to work out the dispute through mediation is almost always a good first step. Also, before heading to court, check whether the dog-related incident is covered by the dog owner's homeowner's or other insurance policy.
Many states have dog-bite statutes that make dog owners completely liable for injuries their dogs cause–no ifs, ands, or buts. Some statutes cover only injuries occurring off the owner's property. Also, some statutes cover only bites, whereas others apply to any injury (for example, the dog jumps on you, scratches you, or knocks you over) or property damage (for example, the dog digs up your rose garden). Do a little research online to find out whether your state has a dog-bite statute. If it does, your task in court could be a lot easier.
If your state doesn't have a dog-bite statute, the old common law rule probably applies. This means you'll have to prove that the owner was aware of, or should have been aware of, the fact that the dog was likely to injure someone. So, if you're bitten by a dog and can show that the dog had snarled, snapped, and lunged at people before, and the owner knew about it but let the dog run free anyway, the owner is probably liable (unless you provoked the dog). If the dog is mean-looking, a photo will be a great help in court; a video is even better.
Also be ready to prove the extent of the injury, where it occurred, and the amount of your losses. This consists of the value of any uncompensated time you took off from work, out-of-pocket medical expenses, property damage (for example, a ripped coat), and the value of your pain and suffering.
The problem of barking dogs is often regulated by city or county ordinance. Sometimes there is a separate ordinance involving animals; in many places, dogs are covered by a general noise ordinance. Look up the law to find out the specifics and whether your city or county government will help enforce it. In addition, the owner of a barking dog that interferes with your ability to enjoy your home has committed a civil wrong (tort) called a nuisance. As with any other tort, the dog's owner is responsible for compensating people harmed by the nuisance.
If you can't work something out through negotiation or mediation and you file in small claims court, you will face two main challenges:
Establishing that the barking dog really has damaged your ability to enjoy your property. One good way to do this is to get a number of neighbors to write letters or, better yet, testify in court to the fact that the dog is truly a noisy menace. (Don't forget to bring a copy of the local dog-barking ordinance to establish that the owner is also a law breaker.) Also, if your city has cited the dog's owner for violating the noise ordinance, make sure the judge knows about it.
Proving money damages. Establishing financial losses caused by a noisy dog is obviously a subjective task. One approach is to try to put a money value on each hour of your lost sleep. For example, if you can convince the judge that each hour you lie awake is worth a certain amount (perhaps $10 or even $20), your damages will quickly add up. As a backup to your oral testimony about how miserable it is to be denied sleep by a howling canine, keep a log of the dates and times you are awakened and present it to the judge. In one case, six neighbors kept a log for 30 days detailing how often a particular dog barked after 10 p.m. The number, which was over 300, was influential in convincing the judge to give the plaintiffs a good-sized judgment.
More on dog problems. Every Dog's Legal Guide: A Must-Have Book for Your Owner, by Mary Randolph (Nolo), answers common legal questions about biting, barking, leash laws, problems with veterinarians, and other common dog-related problems. You will also find a number of interesting dog law-related articles on Nolo's website (www.nolo.com).