NO FREE BITES – DOG BITE LAW 101

Beware of Dog

Adopted by many states, the one-bite-rule gives first-offender dogs a free pass. In MA, though, one bite is not the rule.

There’s an old saying that there are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners.  Massachusetts law recognizes the truth of the saying and holds dog owners responsible for injuries or property damage caused by dogs.  The following are some of the basic principles of the law relating to dogs.

  1. There is no such thing as “one free bite”.  A dog owner can be held liable even if the dog has never bitten anyone before.
  2. A dog owner can be held liable even if the owner was reasonably careful in handling the dog.  If the dog bites someone, the owner is liable unless the person who was bitten was teasing or abusing the dog or was trespassing or committing some other violation of the law.
  3. Liability is extended to anyone who is a “keeper” of the dog, not just the owner.  For example, if a hired dogwalker is walking a dog and the dog bites someone, the dogwalker can be held liable.  We have one case where a client was injured by a dog that someone was supposedly taking care of for a few weeks while the owner was out of town.  That made no difference – the person who is in control of the dog at the time of the injury is the person who will be held liable, even if that person does not technically own the dog.
  4. A dog owner can be held liable for injuries other than dog bites, such as when a dog knocks someone over and injures a person, or someone is injured while attempting to get away from an aggressive dog.
  5. Most homeowners will have insurance for dog bite claims under their homeowners insurance policy.  However, some insurance companies will put an exclusion in the policy to exclude coverage for dogs which tend to be more aggressive, such as pit bulls or rottweilers.
  6. Making a claim arising out of a dog bite does not necessarily mean that the dog will be put down.  City or town officials will make that decision based on all the circumstances and including whether the dog has a history of other attacks.

Here are a few recent examples of cases we have resolved for clients of ours that were bitten by dogs. The first involves a police officer who was bitten by a dog while on duty and was handled by Attorney Jared Ballin.

A few summers ago, Ms. Nicole Patricia takes her eighteen-month-old Australian Labradoodle, Frodo, to a local park. Ms. Patricia allows Frodo to get off its leash. She is unable to catch Frodo, so she calls the police. The responding officer, Ryan Commander, uses a reach-extending device from Animal Control to grab one of Frodo’s hind legs. Nevertheless, Frodo jumps and flails around, causing Officer Commander to fall.  In the process, Frodo turns around and bites Officer Commander’s left ring finger.

animalcontrol

The bite causes a deep laceration and deformity through the nail bed and a displaced fracture at the tip of Officer Commander’s finger. Officer Commander is rushed to the hospital where the laceration and fracture are surgically repaired. This also involved removing, trimming, and reinserting the nail plate. Adding insult to injury, Officer Commander’s nail split and cracked numerous times, and ultimately caused a painful infection about a month later.

Fortunately, the injury was to Officer Commander’s non-dominant hand and the finger was saved. That said, by the time of his discharge from occupational therapy, and to this day, Officer Commander has intermittent pain and loss of sensation as well as a permanent scar. In all, Officer Officer Commander’s injuries kept him out of work for about five months.

The injury claim we presented to Ms. Patricia’s homeowners insurance company included lost earnings from details and overtime hours Officer Commander was unable to earn while he was out injured. We ultimately resolved Officer Commander’s case for $75,000 with Ms. Patricia’s insurer.

This next case study involves an off-duty police officer who was bitten by a dog his neighbors were fostering. The lead attorney on this case was Richard Miller, Esq.

A little over a year ago Mr. and Mrs. Dickson agree to foster a pitbull, Sasha.  Sasha is owned by an out of state family moving to Massachusetts that is in search for pet-friendly housing.  The Dickson’s post on social media of their decision and the issues presented in integrating Sasha into their home.  The Dicksons are not novices as they own 2 other dogs, and a host of other animals, that unfortunately get out and sometimes roam the neighborhood.  A little over a week after getting Sasha, one morning she runs loose into multiple neighboring yards.  Mr. and Mrs. Brady, who live next door, notice Sasha in their neighbor Bill’s yard as well as their own yard.  As a precaution they keep their dog in the house instead of taking him out for a walk.  Mr. Brady hears one of the Dickson’s calling for Sasha, and then observes Sasha heading through the woods back to the Dicksons’ house.

A short while later, thinking that Sasha is back at the Dickson’s house, Mr. Brady heads outside to get his mail and talk to Bill about the pitbull being in Bill’s yard.  While at the mailbox, Mr. Brady has a brief conversation with Dickson’s mother-in-law, who is out walking while carrying her infant granddaughter.  Mr. Brady is advised that Sasha is the Dickson’s dog.  He is assured that Sasha is a “sweetheart” who sleeps with the young granddaughter every night.  When Mr. Brady asks about Sasha’s whereabouts, he is advised that Sasha is not at the Dickson’s house but is in the wooded area separating the two properties.  Sasha then emerges and starts to walk then run toward Mr. Brady while the mother-in-law assures him not worry and that Sasha is nice.  Mr. Brady extends his hand to greet Sasha when Sasha suddenly leaps at him and tries to bite his face and neck.  He pushes Sasha away but she leaps back at him and grabs his forearm with her mouth.  Mr. Brady gets away, but Sasha lunges at him for a third time.  Fortunately, Mr. Brady, an off-duty police officer, is carrying pepper spray which he pulls out and sprays at Sasha while trying to keep Sasha away with his foot.  Bleeding from the bite, he runs the short distance to his house. Fortunately, Sasha does not chase him and attack him again.

Emergency personnel respond and Mr. Brady is transported by ambulance to the local emergency room where he is treated and gets a tetanus shot.  He follows up with his doctor a few days later and fortunately does not require further treatment.  Unfortunately, he has to miss work for a week in the busy detail and overtime season while the bite begins to heal.  He is left with two small scars on his forearm.  We presented Mr. Brady’s claim to the Dicksons’ homeowners insurance company.  We had to educate the out-of-state insurance adjuster about Massachusetts law and that the Dicksons were not merely “baby-sitting” Sasha but were the keepers of Sasha and as such responsible for Mr. Brady’s injuries and damages.  The insurance company agreed to settle the injury and lost wage portion of the claim for $19,300, and on top of that also paid for Mr. Brady’s medical bills (which exceeded $4,600.00) under the Medical Payments coverage of the Dickson’s homeowners policy.

Keepers of animals must secure, control and prevent them from biting anyone. This includes public safety officers. Over the years we have successfully made claims for dog bites under homeowners, renters and commercial policies. We have made similar claims for injuries resulting from being knocked down or chased by dogs. If you are a dog owner yourself, you might consider reviewing your own insurance policy as certain breeds are often excluded from coverage. If you are injured by a dog, you should consult with us early on to learn of your rights and so we can determine whether you have a viable case.

In order to protect the privacy of the injured officer and witnesses, all names have been changed. Any resemblance to names of real persons, past or present, is merely coincidental and not intended. The injured officer agreed to have this article published in order that public safety officers around the Commonwealth be better educated about their legal rights to compensation when injured.

Paul R. Johnson, Esq.

Jared N. Ballin, Esq.

Jared N. Ballin, Esq.

Richard L. Miller, Esq.