The first thing the victim’s lawyer has to do is determine who all the owners of the dog are. There are no hard and fast rules as to who the owner of a dog is. If you want it to be the person who is named as the owner on the animal control report, then look no further. An insurance company, a judge and a jury will have no trouble agreeing with the records of the animal control department or humane society. But if the apparent owner has no insurance, you have to find someone else who has sufficient insurance, assets or prospects.
Thankfully, there are a lot of humane behaviors that can make a person the owner of a dog: feed the dog, let it sleep your room, teach it tricks, give it commands, walk it every day, and things like that.
Similarly, a person might own a dog that he thought he had given away. Consider a dog that comes into a household during a marriage. Both the man and the woman are listed as the owner of the dog. Then they divorce or become separated. The man retains the dog (and thinks he owns it) while the woman has what you might call visitation rights; she takes the dog to the veterinarian, walks it and keeps it at her new apartment for a couple of days per month. Odds are that she and her ex-husband will both be considered to be the owners of the dog.
This other owner does not have to be a spouse. An ex-girlfriend may still be living with her parents or may have moved back into her parents house. Anybody living in a house (other than a renter) is covered by the homeowners or renters insurance that covers the house. That means that the ex-girlfriend is covered. Under those circumstances the dog bite lawyer’s job would be to go after the ex-girlfriend as a co-owner so there will be coverage by virture of her parents’ insurance.
If you cannot find an insured co-owner of the dog, the next step would be to conduct an investigation to see whether the landlord is responsible for the incident in some way. Sometimes the landlord can be held responsible because he had overlooked his own rules which forbade dogs on the premises. Sometimes you have a situation where the dog has bitten other people, and the landlord, the manager or the security company who worked for them knew it. In many states the landlord has an obligation to get rid of either a vicious dog or the tenant who owns it, and if the landlord fails to do so he can be held liable.
If you cannot find a co-owner of the dog or a landlord that can be held liable, you have to look hard at the dog owner’s assets and prospects. You need to find out not only whether he owns real property, cars and boats, but also what line of work he is in, what his job title is, and what it pays. In other words, you have to engage an investigator to do an asset check. Do not stop there, however. Find out who the dog owner’s parents are, determine whether they are still alive, and form a judgment as to whether the dog owner is soon going to inherit a considerable sum of money from them.
Suppose none of that works? Well, you need to file a lawsuit. In many cases, you will be pleasantly surprised when you receive a copy of the Answer, signed by an insurance defense attorney. It turns out that many dog owners are so convinced that the dog had every right to bite the victim, or that the dog did not hurt the victim, that they conceal their insurance until the last possible moment. In other cases, you will receive a phone call from a privately retained attorney, who will be more than willing to confirm that the defendants have no insurance, and to begin negotiating a modest settlement. Finally, there will be those times when the defendant defaults, and you need to discuss with the dog bite victim whether to obtain a judgment based on the default. That is a very difficult decision to make. It is not the standard of care is to take a default judgment in every case, especially after determining that the defendant lacks insurance, assets and prospects.
When an uninsured defendant appears with an attorney, you need to either enter into a settlement that makes sense given the defendant’s financial condition, or continue to pursue the possibility that there is insurance. There are a lot of lawyers who do not understand all of the different types of insurance that can cover personal liabilities, and take the word of laypersons when they say that they do not believe they have coverage for dog bites. You not only have the homeowner policy and the renters policy, but also umbrella policies, excess liability policies and canine liability policies. There are even some insurance brokers who, in selling a customer “full coverage” for motor vehicle accidents, combine a low-cost motor vehicle liability policy with an umbrella policy – and the latter covers dog bites. Consider using interrogatories or taking a deposition, not only to find out what the defendant believes his insurance to be, but also to learn the name of his insurance broker so that you can go to the source and ask questions there.