When we think of personal injury cases, we often consider the people that have hurt us, like the careless driver who was on his phone or the grocery store that didn’t put up a sign near a wet floor. But what happens with the assailant isn’t a person that can be sued? What happens when the injury at issue is a dog bite? Texas law treats dog bites a little differently than other personal injury cases. Below is a primer on what you need to know prior to speaking with your attorney.
There is no “dog bite” statute. Unlike many states, Texas does not have a statute that specifically covers a dog owner’s civil liability for damages caused by their animal’s biting someone. Instead, the law comes from a court decision nearly forty years ago that proclaimed that the state would follow the rule stated in Section 509 of the Restatement of Torts. Marshall v. Ranne, 511 SW 2d 255 (Tx. S. Ct. 1974). In plain English, this means that Texas is a “negligence” or “one bite rule” state for purposes of personal injury cases stemming from dog bites. The failure to stop an attack in progress also is unlawful in Texas.
Act quickly. The Texas statute of limitations – the deadline for filing a lawsuit after an injury – is a short two years. The clock starts to run on the date the dog bit occurred. If you do not file your case within two years of the attack, then, no matter how much you’ve been hurt, the judge will dismiss the case without hearing it. Remember to consult with a trusted attorney who specializes in dog bite cases as soon as possible. She will be able to best present your side of the story if she has ample time to prepare.
Necessary evidence. In a typical Texas dog bite claim, the injured person must show that (1) the dog’s owner knew that the dog had acted aggressively or had bitten someone in the past, or (2) the dog’s owner negligently failed to use reasonable care to control the dog or prevent the bite, and as a result, the injured person was bitten. The first one can be more straightforward to prove: if the dog bit someone in the past, then it’s likely the injured person may recover money damages. The second one requires a couple more steps. For example, suppose that a person is taking out the trash one day when his neighbor’s dog bites him, causing injury. The injured person could try to show that the dog’s owner failed to take reasonable steps to restrain the dog such as keeping the dog on a lead or by putting a fence around the yard.
“Vicious, dangerous, or mischievous.” Although Texas’s “negligence” rule applies to most dog bites, Texas courts will apply a “strict liability” rule in cases in which the dog is known to be “vicious, dangerous or mischievous,” and the bites resulted from the dog’s known nature. A dog that has bitten a person before may be classified as “dangerous,” whether or not the bite caused serious harm.
“Strict liability” in this context means that if your injury was caused by a “dangerous dog,” then you do not have to demonstrate that the owner also failed to use reasonable care to restrain or control the dog. Rather, you will be able to recover damages simply by demonstrating that the dog was known to be dangerous. This type of action has an advantage because there is no need to demonstrate actual knowledge of the dog’s vicious tendencies.
Landlord liability. Note that a landlord or landowner in Texas can be held liable for failing to remove known dangerous dog. Judges apply a two-part test: (1) the injury must have occurred in a common area under the control of the landlord; and (2) the landlord must have had actual or imputed knowledge of the particular dog’s vicious propensities. This could be important if you like in an apartment building, for example, because you may be able to sue both the landlord and the dog owner in the same suit.
Potential defenses. As will any legal matter, it’s important to discuss with your attorney the potential defenses the dog owner might bring and how best to mitigate them. A dog owner in Texas typically has two defenses to a dog bite lawsuit: (1) lack of knowledge and (2) trespassing. A different set of defenses may apply in a criminal dog bite case.
Because many Texas dog bite claims require the injured person to show that the owner knew the dog was aggressive, showing that the owner had no knowledge may work as a defense to a dog bite claim. In other words, an owner may not be liable for a dog bite if the owner can show that he or she did not know the dog was likely to bite or to act aggressively. If so, as a matter of law, the owner was not acting negligently in controlling the dog.
Another issue is if the injured person was trespassing unlawfully on the dog owner’s property when the bite occurred, then the owner may be able to argue that the person who was bitten bears some or all of the fault for what happened. This would be a comparative negligence situation where the fact-finder (judge or jury) would apportion the amount of blame between the injured party and the dog owner. Therefore if the victim’s own conduct was 10% responsible for the incident, for example, the victim’s compensation will be reduced by 10%. The victim’s negligence must be only 50% or less in order to recover money damages.
How can a dog-bite attorney help me? If you have been injured by a dog, please take comfort in knowing there are resources available to you. You may be entitled to compensation for past and future medical bills, pain and suffering, lost wages, psychological counseling to overcome emotional trauma, disfigurement, or other damages. Seeking compensation in a dog-bite case on your own can be difficult for a number of reasons. It is not likely to know the fair value of your injury claim without having your case evaluated by an experienced dog bite attorney. An attorney will be able to discuss your legal options and navigate through the often complex legal system. Furthermore, insurance companies have the goal to get you to agree to the lowest settlement possible, even if it means undervaluing your claim. A qualified dog bite attorney will know how to pursue fair compensation on your behalf.