According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year in the U.S. Most of these bites are not serious, but about 885,000 of these bites will require some type of medical care. Some will require the victim to stay home from work or cause suffering or disfigurement. Half of the bites requiring medical care are inflicted upon children.
All states make dog owners, and pet owners generally, responsible for the injuries and damage caused by their pets. However, some states follow what is called "the one free bite rule," which states a dog's owner will not be legally responsible for a dog bite until he or she has reason to know the dog might bite.
Liability Standards Vary
In some states, a dog owner will not be responsible for a dog bite until they have reason to know that the dog might bite someone, but other states impose strict liability or evaluate an owner’s negligence more generally.
More than half of the states, including Maine and Minnesota, have enacted strict liability statutes. These make dog owners liable for injuries caused by their dogs whether or not they know of their dogs' vicious temperaments. However, some of the states, such as California, make an owner strictly liable only in the case of dog bites, not dog attacks generally.
Still other states make a dog owner responsible when he or she failed to use reasonable care or was negligent in controlling the dog. In Georgia, an owner is liable if the dog is known to be a dangerous animal or the dog is off leash. For example, when a dog owner takes his or her pet for a walk, knows the pet has issues with people, sees an empty field, and takes the dog off the leash, the dog owner may be held liable if somebody walks into the field and gets bitten.
What Dog Owners Need to Know
Any dog can bite. Sometimes the bite comes out of nowhere, and other times the bite happens due to a dog's fear, a dog's protective instincts towards its owner or its food, or provocation by the victim. While it may not bother you when your dog jumps on you, if you let your dog off the leash and he or she jumps on an elderly person who then falls and gets hurt, you could be held responsible for those damages. It is important, therefore, to keep your dog from getting into situations that make your dog more likely to bite or attack.
Preventative measures include training and socializing your dog from a young age, never letting your dog off the leash in public places, taking particular care when your dog is around young children and never leaving your dog alone with a toddler or infant, keeping your dog's rabies vaccination and other shots current, and avoiding situations where your dog has previously displayed any sort of aggression or discomfort, such as around strangers. At your home, you may want to post a prominent sign warning visitors of your dog to avoid a premises liability lawsuit.
What To Do If You're Attacked By A Dog
Dog bite injuries may be covered by the homeowner’s or renter’s insurance of the dog owner.
If you are the victim of a dog attack or bite, you are entitled to defend yourself. In most states, you can take any necessary action to stop a dog, including killing it in the case of a sustained attack on you or somebody else. You should immediately report the attack to the dog's owner and get the names and phone numbers of the owners, as well as any witnesses.
Afterward, you should seek medical care, even if you don't think your injuries are serious, since sometimes injuries take a few days to manifest. You should report the event to animal control authorities. Later, if you are pursuing a claim, you should also look into the dog's history by checking with animal control to see if the dog has a history of attacks or has been officially designated as "dangerous."
If you are injured and need medical care, you can obtain reimbursement from the dog's owner for both economic and noneconomic damages: medical expenses, lost income, disfigurement, and pain and suffering. When you are injured on the dog's owner's property, his or her homeowner's policy or renter's insurance may cover the cost. You should submit the claim to these insurers even when the injury occurs out in public, off the property, since sometimes those bites are covered too.