Animal Control Looks the Other Way and We All Pay the Costs

I have found that most renters who own dogs do not have renters insurance and therefore are unprotected when their dogs bite or otherwise injure a person. The dog owners are not the only ones who are unprotected, however. When a dog owner is not insured, the victim either has to drop his claim for reasonable compensation, or bring it himself in small claims court. This is because insurance companies pay victims only 10 to 20 cents on the dollar when the victims do not have a lawyer, so a victim has to go to court to get a full cup of justice.

This is fine for cases that fit the criteria for small claims court, namely those involving injuries of low value, but is terrible for the serious cases. A serious case is ANY bite to the face, or a bite that results in significant scarring, disability, or medical costs. In such cases, the victim needs a lawyer who will fight for significant, fair compensation that will pay all the costs and compensate the victim for pain, suffering, loss of the quality of life, etc.

Here is the Catch-22: to retain a lawyer on a contingency fee basis (i.e., to retain a lawyer without having to pay him anything up front) there has to be a defendant with insurance or a defendant that is very rich. If the dog owner doesn’t have insurance, the victim of a serious injury is usually out of luck because he can’t possibly afford to pay a lawyer up front to chase a dog owner who rents an apartment and is so impecunious as to fail to protect himself with renters insurance. Even if your hourly-paid lawyer wins your case, you can’t get blood out of a turnip.

If the animal control departments were fully staffed, properly funded, and 100% committed to getting justice for dog bite victims, these authorities would have the ability to get the dog bite victims compensated — or at least have a better chance at getting compensation — because of the sentencing laws. If a dog owner were found guilty because of a dog attack, the sentence could include a restitution order in an amount that would cover the victim’s economic losses. Although such orders do not bring a full cup of justice because restitution typically does not include compensation for pain, suffering, anxiety, loss of the quality of life, etc., they nevertheless cover medical costs and loss of income. This remedy can be a good one for the victim, and if the dog owner doesn’t pay, he can be jailed.

What we all know, however, is that animal control departments are letting the public down by not getting convictions, not classifying vicious dogs as vicious, and often not doing anything at all after a dog attack. By not prosecuting dog owners as they are supposed to be prosecuted, the animal control authorities are depriving victims of their remedy of restitution, among other things. This is a remedy guaranteed by the constitutions of a number of states, including California, so this failure is very significant from a legal standpoint. But it is also significant from an economic standpoint, because when the wrongdoers do not pay for the medical treatment, it is the taxpayers and the health insurers who have to pay.

In the end, we are all hurt when the animal control laws are not enforced. We face greater risks on the street, and pay higher costs for health insurance and public programs like Medicaid. It’s not fair to the victims or to the rest of us.