An Overview Of Dog Bites

The Law Office of Louis S. Haskell has represented numerous people who have been the victims of animal attacks. Most have actually transferred from other attorneys who did not realize that a dog bite is a strict liability and not a negligence offense. As such, it is possible to recover for a dog bite even if the dog has never bitten before and even if the dog’s owner was not negligent.

Dog Bite Law in Massachusetts:

Massachusetts has one of the best laws relating to dog attacks in the country.  Massachusetts imposes strict liability on the owners and the keepers of dogs for all manner of personal injury caused by all manner of dog attacks.  Massachusetts has specifically repealed the so-called “one free bite rule”.  It is not necessary that the dog had bitten before, or that the dog belongs to a vicious breed, or that the owner of the dog had any warning whatsoever that the dog might bite or attack.  If the dog attacks or bites, the owner is liable.  New Hampshire has a dog bite statute very similar to the law in Massachusetts.

Unlike most states, Massachusetts also imposes strict liability upon the keeper of the dog, as well. A “keeper” can be a kennel, a dog walker, a dog sitter, a veterinarian or anybody who finds themselves in the position that they are in control of or responsible for a dog they do not own.  When the owner of the dog is a minor, the statute imposes strict liability upon the parents.  Not only does Massachusetts impose strict liability for dog bites, but it also imposes strict liability for dog attacks.  As a result, if a dog does not bite, but merely jumps on somebody or scratches somebody or runs into somebody, the owner and keeper are liable.  Again, there is no necessity that the owner or keeper have any warning that the dog might be prone to attack.  There is no need to prove any manner of negligence, or otherwise to prove anything other than that the person is the owner or keeper of the dog, and that the dog bite or attack caused injury.

There are a few defenses to this strict liability in Massachusetts, but only a few.  The main one is that the victim of the dog bite or dog attack not have provoked the dog.  Teasing or tormenting a dog may defeat strict liability.  The second defense is that the victim not to be a trespasser, but instead lawfully at the place where the dog attacked them.  As such, a burglar who is attacked by a dog while breaking into a house does not have a case, but a mailman who is attacked while delivering the mail does.  “Trespass” is a legal term of art which will impact very few people.  There is a defense to the defense.  The Massachusetts statute specifically states that children under the age of seven are presumptively incapable of provoking an attack or of trespassing.  Given that most dog attacks are on children, this absolute liability for attacks on children under the age of seven is very important.  Simply put, the law presumes that such young children do not know better than what they do, and thus there is an absolute burden on the owners and keepers of dogs to protect such children under all circumstances.

The statute imposing strict liability in Massachusetts is M.G.L Ch. 140 sec. 155, which states the following:

Liability For Damage Caused By Dog; minors; presumption and burden of proof

If any dog shall do any damage to either the body or property of any person, the owner or keeper, or if the owner or keeper be a minor, the parent or guardian of such minor, shall be liable for such damage, unless such damage shall have been occasioned to the body or property of a person who, at the time such damage was sustained, was committing a trespass or other tort, or was teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog. If a minor, on whose behalf an action under this section is brought, is under seven years of age at the time the damage was done, it shall be presumed that such minor was not committing a trespass or other tort, or teasing, tormenting or abusing such dog, and the burden of proof thereof shall be upon the defendant in such action.

Dog Bite Law in New Hampshire

New Hampshire, like Massachusetts, has one of the best laws relating to dog attacks in the country.  New Hampshire imposes strict liability on the owners, the keepers, and the possessors of dogs for all manner of injury caused by all manner of dog attacks.  New Hamphsire specifically repealed the so-called “one free bite rule”.  It is not necessary that the dog had bitten before, or that the dog belonged to a vicious breed or that the ownder of the dog had any warning whatsoever that the dog might bite or attack.  If the dog attacks or bites, the owner is liable.

Unlike most states, New Hampshire imposes strict liability upon the keeper of the dog as well.  A “keeper” can be a kennel, dog walker, dog sitter, veterinarian, or anybody who finds themselves in the position that they control or are responsible for a dog they do not own.  When the owner of the dog is a minor, the statute imposes strict liability on the parents.  Not only does New Hampshire impose strict liability for dog bites, but it also imposes strict liability for dog attacks.  As a result, if a dog does not bite, but merely jumps on somebody, scratches somebody or runs into somebody, the owner and keeper are liable.  Again, there is no necessity that the owner or keeper, or even the mere possessor of the dog have any warning that the dog might be prone to attack.  There is no need to prove any manner of negligence, or otherwise to prove anything other than that the person is the owner or keeper or possessor of the dog and that the dog bite or attack caused injury.

There are few defenses to this strict liability in New Hampshire.  It is necessary that the victim not be engaged in the commission of a trespass or other tort, such as assault.  As such, if the dog is merely protecting its master who is being attacked by the bite victim, then there is no case.  “Trespass” is a legal term of art which will impact very few people.  However, it is designed to shut out burglars and the like from legal recovery.

The New Hampshire statute which imposes strict liability on the owner or keeper or possessor of a dog is R.S.A 466:19 states:Liability of Owner or Keeper. – Any person to whom or to whose property, including sheep, lambs, fowl, or other domestic creatures, damage may be occasioned by a dog not owned or kept by such person shall be entitled to recover damages from the person who owns, keeps, or possesses the dog, unless the damage was occasioned to a person who was engaged in the commission of a trespass or other tort. A parent or guardian shall be liable under this section if the owner or keeper of the dog is a minor.

Homeowners Insurance

If the owner or the keeper of the dog is a homeowner, then they will usually be covered by their homeowners insurance.  Generally speaking, homeowners policies pay claims against homeowners for all personal injury claims including dog bites.  However, in recent years some homeowners insurance policies have carried specific exclusions for dog bites and dog attacks. As such, if you are a dog owner, you would do well to review your own policy to make sure that you are protected.  Some homeowners also carry umbrella policies which may pay for these types of injuries as well.  If the dog owner is not a homeowner but a renter, it is possible that they may have renters insurance or an umbrella policy which would also pay for the injuries caused by their dog.  If the keeper of the dog is in the business of caring for animals, such as a kennel, then there is probably a commercial liability policy available.  If there is no insurance to cover these dog related injuries, then it is necessary to sue the dog owner personally, or perhaps to find a third party who might have liability.
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Who Else May Be Liable For Dog Bite Or Dog Attack

There may be people besides the dog owner or keeper who may be held liable for the injuries caused by the dog.  Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be held to a strict liability standard.  The law of negligence continues in full force for everyone.  As a result, there may be third parties who can be held liable for their negligent acts.

The most obvious group to look at are the landlords.  If there is no homeowners insurance, that is likely because the dog owner is a renter and thus has a landlord.  We were successful in getting a landlord’s insurer to pay a dog bite case where the fence around the property was not high enough.  In my case, my client had a mental disability and actually reached over the low fence to pet a pit bull which bit him.  After considerable argument, the landlord’s insurer did accept liability for the case and made a fair offer of settlement.  A better case would be if the animal simply escaped from the property because of the landlord’s neglect in maintaining a fence.

We have never seen it done, but in theory the failure to warn cases that have sprung up in the context of psychiatric malpractice could probably be extended to veterinarians, if they know that they are dealing with a particularly dangerous animal.  Of course, the psychiatric malpractice cases involve wrongful death or serious bodily injury.  That would be true in the veterinary context as well.  While we would happily take a case against a homeowner where the dog bite caused a small puncture wound, could not imagine any attorney bringing a veterinarian malpractice case for a similar injury.

Negligence cases always turn on their own facts.  As a result, the question is always is there a third-party who could or should have prevented the injury and should be found liable for it.

What You Should Do If You are Bit or Attacked by a Dog

Identify The Dog And The dog’s Owner

You need to know whether or not the dog had its rabies shots.  If it has not, then you will need to get the rabies treatment which is quite painful and extensive.  If the dog has had its shots, you want to know so as to avoid having to have this treatment.  From a legal point of view, it is important to identify the dog and its owner because the owner is strictly liable for this attack.  It is the owner’s homeowners insurance that will pay for these injuries and treatment

Seek Medical Treatment As Soon As Possible

Dog attacks may cause very serious injuries.  Most are obvious – the cuts, the bruises, the bleeding, the obvious pain.  Others are not so obvious.  A dog bite carries a serious risk of infection.  So too does a scratch from any animal.  Being knocked to the ground by a vicious animal certainly carries the risk of orthopedic injuries such as broken bones and torn ligaments.  The psychological trauma caused by a dog bite attack is not immediately identifiable, but no less real.  Because of the infection risks alone, it is imperative that you go to an emergency room or urgent care facility right away.

Report The Dog Attack

It is important that you contact the police immediately and let them know that you were attacked.  First, the police will help you to identify the dog’s owner and get the information that you need about the dog, such as whether or not it has had its rabies shots.  Second, the police will document the attack and where it occurred, and which animal attacked you.  They will also document the facts of the attack.  You would be amazed at the way concerned dog owners suddenly change their tune when it turns out that a claim is being made against them.  The police will document the story at the time of the incident, and not when the owner is under the control of the insurance company.

Have Photos Taken Of The Injuries

As soon as possible, usually right after you leave the hospital, take pictures of your bites, punctures, scrapes and wounds and any other visible injuries.  If your clothing is torn or there is any blood on your clothes or anywhere else, it is good to photograph that as well.  A picture really is worth a thousand words.  Certainly the trauma of the event is easier for the insurance adjuster, or potentially a juror, to understand when there are photographs depicting what the dog did.  Later on, all they will have are some scars and your words describing things.  On the day of the attack, all of this visual evidence is available.  Also, it helps to document that the scars that you may later develop were caused by the dog, and are not simply scars that you acquired in the course of your life.

Contact Attorney Louis S. Haskell

Call us as soon as possible after the dog attack. There are a lot of things going on.  Often, time is of the essence.  Hopefully, you have already sought treatment, identified the dog, called the police, and taken all the relevant photographs.  If you have not, then these things need to be done, and Attorney Haskell will assist you with them.  You may be getting calls from the insurance company, but you should not be talking to them.  That is Attorney Haskell’s job.  In addition, there may be evidence which needs to be preserved and witnesses who need to be located.  Doing these things gets more difficult as time passes, so it is important to see the attorney right away.

Stay Away From The Insurance Company

The insurance company may try to trick you into saying things that would diminish or eliminate the value of your claim.  It is possible that the insurance company will try to convince you to settle the claim for short money to keep you from seeing a lawyer.   There is no reason for you to be helping them.

Other Animal Attacks

By far most animal attacks involve dogs.  What is more, dog bite attack claims are helped along by the fact that the State of Massachusetts has a very good statute regarding such things.  However, from time to time people fall victim to attacks by other animals and many times there is a claim to be made against the owner, keeper or some other person related to one of these animals.

As a general rule, these are going to be negligence claims.  There is a body of law concerning abnormally dangerous activities which imposes absolute liability.  Keeping a pet lion would fairly be characterized as an abnormally dangerous activity.  If anybody gets attacked in the Merrimack Valley by somebody’s pet lion, they are in pretty good shape legally, although probably not physically.

When dealing with negligence cases, it would be necessary to show that the party alleged to be negligent had some warning that the animal was prone to attack. What is more, it would be necessary to show that the person reasonably could have and should have done something that would have prevented the attack, but did not.  The most obvious omission which would give rise to a negligence claim would be the simple failure to keep the animal away from people.  A vicious cat, for example, should never be allowed outside.  The vicious lion should be kept in a cage.  All negligence cases turn on their facts.  If you are attacked by any animal, the best step is to take all the steps identified under what you should do if you are bite or attacked by a dog, and contact us immediately.