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Dog bites – is the owner liable for my injuries?

Courtney Photo By Courtney Steiger

Dog bites – is the owner liable for my injuries?

As a personal injury attorney in Broward County, I periodically receive phone calls from individuals injured as a result of a dog bite.   Dog bites can be painful, dramatic, (especially for children) and can lead to permanent disfigurement and scarring.   As a result, dog bite cases can be lucrative depending on the circumstances and degree of injuries.   As a courtesy to individuals involved in dog bite cases, our dog bite attorneys created this brief guide describing: (1) the dog bite statute in Florida; (2) what to do if you are a victim of a dog bite; and (3) who is responsible for your damages.

Dog Bite Statute

The “dog bite statute” can be found at Florida Statute §767.04 and reads: “The owner of any dog that bites any person while such person is on or in a public place, or lawfully on or in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, is liable for damages suffered by persons bitten, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owners’ knowledge of such viciousness. However, any negligence on the part of the person bitten that is a proximate cause of the biting incident reduces the liability of the owner of the dog by the percentage that the bitten person’s negligence contributed to the biting incident. A person is lawfully upon private property of such owner within the meaning of this act when the person is on such property in the performance of any duty imposed upon him or her by the laws of this state or by the laws or postal regulations of the United States, or when the person is on such property upon invitation, expressed or implied, of the owner. However, the owner is not liable, except as to a person under the age of 6, or unless the damages are proximately caused by a negligent act or omission of the owner, if at the time of any such injury the owner had displayed in a prominent place on his or her premises a sign easily readable including the words “Bad Dog”.”

Of special interest, Florida is a strict liability state.   This means that the dog’s owner is liable for the damages suffered by the person bitten even if (1) this is the dog’s first act of violence (i.e. “first bite”) or (2) the dog’s viciousness was unknown to the owner.   Contrary to public belief, there is no “first bite free” provision in Florida.

The dog bite statute only references the owner of a dog.   A victim can recover from someone other the owner of the dog under the doctrine of “scienter” if: (1) the dog previously bit a person and (2) the keeper of the dog was aware of the dog’s previous conduct.

Besides the dog’s owner, a landlord may be also liable for attacks that occur on the landlord’s premises if the landlord knows a dog is vicious and has sufficient control of the premises to protect the victim (i.e. if landlord knows that a tenant’s pit bulls have threatened other tenants but the landlord does not evict the pit bulls owner).

Of note, a child under the age of six is presumed to be incapable of comparative negligence (i.e. provoking a dog).   A child over the age of six is capable of comparative negligence, possible reducing his/her recovery.    If the child is over the age of six and if the dog’s owner displayed in a prominent place on his or her premises a sign easily readable including the words “Bad Dog”, the owner is not strictly liable if the incident occurred on his/her premises, but may be liable under a negligence theory.

What to do if you (or your child) is the victim of a dog bite?

  1. Identify the dog and the dog’s owner.  It is very important to obtain the dog owner’s address and phone number, if possible.  If there are any witnesses, collect their information also.
  2. Seek immediate medical care.
  3. Call the police and file a report.   Do not feel bad for the dog or his/her owner – filing a report properly documents your case.
  4. Take photographs of your injury.
  5. Talk to a dog bite attorney before speaking with the dog owner’s insurance company (if applicable).

Can I recover from the dog owner’s insurance company?

A dog owner is legally responsible for the damages incurred as a result of their dog’s action (i.e. dog bite).  Such damages may include: past and future medical bills, lost income and pain and suffering.    Medical bills include specialists such as plastic surgeons.   Although the degrees of pain and suffering vary greatly the rule of thumb is that unprovoked acts against children (especially involving disfigurement) typically garner higher damages for pain and suffering.  In some circumstances, punitive damages (damages meant to punish the dog’s owner for their misconduct) may be available when the dog owner’s behavior was extremely negligent or intentional.

Besides the dog’s owner, a dog’s owner’s homeowner’s insurance may be responsible for you (or your child’s) damages as a result of its policyholder’s dog.  Most homeowner’s insurance policies cover any legal liability the owner incurs as a result of negligence.   This is very beneficial to you (or your child) as insurance companies have “deep pockets” which increase your likelihood of recovery.

If you (or your child) is injured as a result of a dog bite, immediately contact an experienced personal injury attorney who has experience handling dog bite cases to review your claim.   The right dog bite case could garner six-figure damages.