Determining Goals

A dog bite victim may have one or more goals. Typical goals include:

  • Making the neighborhood safe from the dog that bit the victim.
  • Getting veterinary bills paid, when the attacking dog bit not only a human but also another animal.
  • Representing the victim at a dangerous dog hearing.
  • Handling the emotional upset that occurred within a family or among neighbors because of the attack on the victim.
  • Dealing with the insurance company.
  • Paying for future medical bills for cosmetic surgery.
  • Pressing criminal charges against the handler or owner of the dog.
  • Filing suit for bodily injuries or wrongful death.

These goals are very different. The typical case will have only several of them, and no case can have all because they range from trying to “smooth things over” all the way to instigating criminal proceedings. An attorney cannot assume that the victim is seeking legal advice for the purpose of recovering compensation, because in many cases the sole intent is to rid the community of a dangerous dog.

The attorney cannot effectively represent any client unless both have the same goals. A lawyer cannot focus on attaining a monetary recovery while the client is shut inside his home, awaiting relief from the dangerous dog next door. The satisfaction of both the lawyer and the client depends on reaching common goals together.

Assuming that the attorney is not going to represent the victim without hope of compensation, it is essential that the client understand that unless he is willing to pay for the attorney’s time on an hourly basis, the lawyer’s involvement usually must be predicated upon the possibility of a substantial monetary recovery. Essentially, the relationship of client and contingency fee attorney is like a partnership where one party contributes the legal cause of action, and the other puts in the time, skill and money necessary to achieve a dollar recovery based upon that cause of action. The American system of paying for legal services on a contingency basis enables everyone to “afford” legal representation, prevents the rich corporation from trampling upon the rights of the poor, and promotes the ends of justice. To avail oneself of a “free” lawyer, the victim must bring “to the table” a legal claim that holds the possibility of a substantial monetary recovery. If the client’s only goals are nonmonetary in nature, the attorney should immediately point out to him that a contingency fee relationship will not be possible.

Effective representation also requires that the goals are achievable. Fear of the dog often prompts the victim to request the attorney’s help in getting the dog put down. However, that is normally a governmental function, built into the city, county or state dangerous dog laws. An attorney can send letters to the animal control department, and can help the client through the political process that might be necessary to motivate reluctant authorities to take action, but in the final analysis the attorney and the client cannot normally perform this governmental duty. It is possible in states like California and Pennsylvania to initial proceedings directed against the dog, but these are examples of nonmonetary goals which might require the payment of hourly fees to the lawyer.