Bankruptcy and Dog Bites

A dog bite claim can be discharged in bankruptcy, but there are three major exceptions that can protect the victim’s claim.

 

Overview

Ordinarily, a dog bite claim based on a dog bite statute, negligence, premises liability or another non-intentional tort is dischargeable in bankruptcy. In plain English, this means that a person who is sued because of a dog bite can declare bankruptcy and thus avoid having to defend himself and pay the claim. However, there are three major exceptions to this general rule:

  • If the person who is sued has insurance, then the victim can apply to the bankruptcy court for special permission to continue maintaining the claim or lawsuit, which then is limited to the benefits available under the insurance policy.
  • If the dog previously attacked another person, then the victim can apply for an order that the debt be deemed nondischargeable.
  • If the dog bit the victim as a result of an intentional act by the dog owner, then the victim can apply for an order that the debt be deemed nondischargeable.

If the attacking dog previously bit another victim or otherwise exhibited dangerousness, the Complaint against the dog owner can and should allege the commission of a willful and malicious injury. This is because liability for a willful and malicious injury to the person of another can be non dischargeable if the victim presses the claim in bankruptcy court. Accordingly, where the complaint in a lawsuit alleged that the defendant was a dog owner who “wrongfully kept a dog, well knowing him to be of a ferocious and mischievous disposition and accustomed to attack and bite mankind,” it was held that the liability was not dischargeable because the gravamen of the action was a willful and malicious act, namely harboring the dog.

An example of such a decision is In Re Rines (1982, F BC MD Ga) 18 BR 666, 8 BCD 1205 (applying Georgia law). The court concluded that judgment debtors found liable for injuries caused by their dog under a Georgia statute imposing strict liability on the owner of a vicious or dangerous animal had acted willfully and maliciously since they knew that the dog had bitten other human beings prior to this attack. The court thus held that the judgment debt resulting from the dog bite injury was non dischargeable in bankruptcy. (See Annotation, “Injury by dog or other animal as willful and malicious injury so as to preclude it or judgment procured on it from operation of bankruptcy discharge,” 26 ALR2d 1368.)