When the dog owner denies having insurance coverage, the victim still may have a remedy.
Make sure the dog owner understands where the insurance can be found
First of all, know that there are four kinds of insurance that could provide coverage for what happened: homeowners insurance, renters insurance, canine liability insurance, and commercial general insurance (if the dogs were performing a service for a business, like guarding a junkyard, and they somehow got out and attacked you). For more details, refer to Insurance for the Dog Owner.
Your dog owner might be insured by any of these. You can start by asking. If there is a criminal case or “dog court” case going on, contact the detective, prosecutor or animal control officer in charge of it, and ask them to find out for you. That often works. In some states, giving insurance information is mandatory, but in most states it unfortunately is not mandatory. Attorney Kennerth M. Phillips has lobbied to enact laws to change that.
Often the dog owner does not realize that insurance coverage on the place where they live equals insurance coverage on them. In other words, if the dog owner’s mom has homeowners insurance and the dog owner is living at home, the latter is covered. But if the dog owner is renting from the person he or she is living with, there is no coverage for the dog owner. So make sure you check out their residence because if it is a house or a decent looking apartment then there probably is insurance coverage.
Look for a co-owner who might have insurance
Look for somebody else who could be held responsible for the accident. For example, an uninsured, single woman may seem to be the sole owner of the dog but there might also be a fully insured boyfriend or separated husband or even ex-husband who either considers himself to be a co-owner of the dog or legally fits into the category of a co-owner of the dog. And of course that works the other way around, with an uninsured guy who has an insured, well-to-do girlfriend or separated wife or ex-wife who is the co-owner of the dog.
Read the adoption contract that “incriminates” the prior owner of the dog
For reasons that only can be guessed at, there are adoption and rescue groups using adoption contracts which say that the group remains the owner of the dog. If so, the victim can go after them as the owner.
Find the dog owner’s “principal”
Another potential defendant is a person whose interests were being served by the dogs being where they were at the time of the accident. In agency law, this person would be the “principal” and the dog owner would be the “agent.” For example, Attorney Kenneth M. Phillips had a case where pit bulls owned by an uninsured, pennyless ex-convict severely mauled a four-year-old boy walking on the street. It turned out that the dog owner used those dogs to keep predators out of his mother’s farm and away from her residence. Because his mother lived on the farm and the accident happened on a street going through the farm, Attorney Phillips argued that both the farm insurance and the mother’s homeowners insurance had to pay for the boy’s damages. That is exactly what happened. The little buy was Matthew Guess and you can see his horrific injuries at https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/article208552764.html
Consider whether the dog owner’s employer can be held liable
Yet another potential defendant would be the employer of the dog owner if the latter and his or her dogs were engaged in some activity within the scope of the employment duties. For example, a few years ago Attorney Phillips had a case against a famous movie studio because one of their guards trained his German shepherds to attack trespassers, and they attacked an art director, severely injuring him. Attorney Phillips won that case also.
File a lawsuit to get information
Use your funds to retain a lawyer to file suit against the dog owners. There are three very good reasons for doing this:
- A lawsuit can reveal hidden insurance. It is common for dog owners to lie about their insurance until they are sued. When they are served, they will then “come clean” by giving the victim’s attorney the insurance information, or turning the matter over to their insurance company for defense and indemnification.
- Lawsuits lead to settlements. Dog owners who truly do not have insurance coverage may offer an acceptable settlement arrangements.
- Defendants blame others who might have insurance. You might not be aware of another dog owner, premises owner, employer or principal who may be legally liable for what happened and might be insured for it too. Examples include a friend who co-owns the dog, an ex-boyfriend or ex-wife who still co-owns the dog, or a rescue group whose contract foolishly provides that it still owns the dog. A word of caution: discovering other parties who are legal owners of a dog is uniquely the job of a lawyer, not a person with little or no knowledge of dog bite law. See Tips and Tricks for Victims’ Attorneys on this website or better yet view the video Tips and Tricks for Dog Bite Lawyers.
Press hard to get the dog owner convicted of a crime so there will be “restitution”
If there is a criminal prosecution, you can collect that way too. A defendant can be ordered to “make restitution” to the victim, meaning pay compensation for the victim’s economic losses of all sorts and even attorneys fees. Two things have to happen: the defendant has to be convicted (even with a plea bargain or sentence bargain) and you have to work with the prosecutor to get the order and then enforce it. This can be a powerful tool because the dog owner will go to jail if they don’t pay you.
If the dog owner is convicted, make a claim against the victims fund
All states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico have established compensation programs for crime victims. To receive compensation, victims must comply with state statutes and rules. Again, the key requirement is that the dog owner is convicted first. For details, start at State Crime Victims Compensation, an official website of the US government.
Make a workers compensation claim if possible
If the victim was doing something for someone when attacked, consult a workers compensation lawyer because the workers compensation system pays for medical treatment and provides temporary disability payments as well as permanant disability income. The definition of “worker” is unsettled at this time in a number of jurisdictions; for example, California enacted a statute in 2020 that vastly broadened the definition and thereby made a wider range of people eligible for workers compensation benefits.
Sue in small claims court if you can’t get a lawyer
Finally, you can sue the individual in a small claims court and then execute on the judgment by garnishing their wages and hitting their bank account. So it’s a two-step process: first you have to win your lawsuit and then do what is required for the garnishment or bank account levy.