According to the Humane Society there are 78.2 million pet dogs in the United States. Thirty-nine percent of all households own a dog with forty percent owning multiple dogs. This article will cover some of the issues you may face if your dog bites someone.
Most pet owners will never have a problem with their dog causing injury. However, what are your potential liabilities if it does? In Illinois, the Animal Control Act governs who is legally liable for dog bites and when they are liable for a dog bite.
If my dog bites someone, do I have to pay them?
The answer to this question is tricky and largely depends on where you and your dog reside.
I own my own home
If you own a house, your homeowner’s insurance should cover the injuries caused by your dog. Most homeowner’s insurance will cover you and your dog. However, check with your insurance agent since some policies exclude coverage for dog bites. Some insurance companies exclude certain breeds of dogs, such as pit bulls and rotweillers since they generate more claims than poodles and beagles. Furthermore, if your dog has bitten in the past and the insurance company pays a claim, they will likely send you an endorsement which says they will not cover any future dog bite claims. If your homeowner’s insurance does not cover your dog, you will be personally responsible for paying for any injury caused by your dog.
I rent an apartment
If you rent an apartment and have renter’s insurance, that too should cover your dog, but be sure to check with your insurance agent. If you rent an apartment and do not have renter’s insurance, you will be personally responsible for any injury caused by your dog. Your landlord’s insurance will not cover you or your dog, that is your responsibility. It is always a good idea to get renter’s insurance, but I would consider it essential if you own a dog.
I am a landlord
The law regarding liability for dog bites is very expansive, but not so expansive that a landlord would be responsible for the dog bite by one of their tenants. It is nearly impossible to be held liable for a dog bite by a tenant’s dog.
It’s more than just biting
If your dog bites someone, it should not surprise you that you could be held legally liable. But the law is much broader than just dog bites. For example, if your dog jumps on someone, knocking them over, and causing injury, the law will likely hold you responsible. Other surprising examples where there can be liability are when someone is injured while trying to avoid a dog. We handled a case where a mail carrier jumped off a porch to avoid being bitten by a dog and broke his ankle. We also represented a girl who fell off her bike while being pursued by several pit bulls. We made recoveries from homeowner’s insurance on both of these claims. These examples show that a dog owner not only has a responsibility when his dog bites someone, but also a responsibility to keep his dog under control.
It’s more than just dogs
Although this article focuses on dogs, the Animal Control Act covers all domestic animals. Our office represented the family of a young man whose car hit a horse which had escaped. The horse owner was legally liable for his horse which had escaped. We also represented a man who was attacked by a cat. I am sure your first reaction is to laugh that someone was attacked by a cat. However, the cat scratched our client so deeply and repeatedly that he required stitches. His legs were left with many scars. Although the vast majority of cases involve dogs, the Animal Control Act is quite broad.
There are limited defenses to a dog bite case. First, the victim must have the legal right to be where they are when they are bitten. This rarely comes into play since dogs usually bite in a public location when they escape from your property, or they bite someone who is allowed to be there, such as a guest or meter reader. You are likely liable even to a salesman who comes uninvited to your door. If someone truly trespasses on your property and is bitten by your dog, there is no liability. But who is considered a trespasser is defined very narrowly.
The main defense to a dog bite case is provocation. The word provocation also has a very limited meaning under the Animal Control Act. Provocation involves intentional antagonism toward the dog such as pulling its tail, removing its food bowl, etc.. Merely petting a dog or even “rough housing” with a dog does not rise to the level of provocation. If your dog bites someone, your natural defensive reaction would be to say they provoked your dog. This may be partially true, but provocation under the law is much more narrow.
Training and Responsibility are the key
All dogs have the propensity to bite. It is a natural reaction. As a dog owner, it is your responsibility to train your dog not to bite, not to jump and not to be aggressive. Even breeds of dogs considered to be the most dangerous can be trained not to bite. As a dog owner, it is also your responsibility to avoid placing your dog in situations which may cause him to bite. Family gatherings, parties, as well as small children can all cause a dog to act out of character and potentially bite someone. Finally, you must be responsible for controlling your dog, either with a leash or a fence. Loose dogs have a greater likelihood of biting someone.