Getting Sued

There are at least 4.7 million dog bites every year in the United States, based on figures that are more than 20 years old and which certainly must have grown since then. (See Dog Bite Statistics.) From that total, only 800,000 victims receive medical attention. These seriously injured victims generally do not receive compensation. The liability segment of the insurance industry only pays an average of 17,500 dog bite victims per year. (See Insurance Information Institute, Dog Bite Liability, May 2014.) Therefore, payments are made to only 2% of the victims who go to the doctor for dog bites.

People who are sued naturally worry whether they bought enough insurance coverage to pay for the claim. This is the subject of Insurance for Dog Owners. All that will be noted here is that the usual $100,000 limit found in homeowner insurance policies usually is enough for settlement. If the injuries are substantial, however, this may not be enough. In that event you will want to use your umbrella policy or excess policy. Umbrella and excess policies generally provide $1 million of coverage for about $100 per year.

Avoiding a lawsuit

If you have a big dog or one that shows signs of aggression (whether because it likes to eat, likes to sleep, likes to hoard its toys, or likes to bite people — the reason doesn’t matter), you need to protect yourself by keeping the dog away from people, muzzling it when it is around people, and strictly following all animal control laws (like leash laws, anti-trespassing laws which apply to dogs, and anti-running at large laws). If your dog bites someone or causes injury in other ways, you might find yourself on the receiving end of a dog bite claim. Before it escalates, there are measures you can take.

The best and easiest is to be very, very nice to the dog bite victim (and his family). Show concern without necessarily accepting blame, and take the other steps described above. Be sincere, don’t be defensive, and don’t blame anyone.

If you are sued

If you are sued, you need to turn the matter over to your renters insurance or homeowners insurance; if you were on the job, turn it over to your employer because an employer is required to defend employees from suit. If you own a business and the incident occurred in connection with business activities or on business property, turn it over to your commercial general insurance carrier.

If you were not insured, you need to respond in a manner appropriate to the court. If the case is in small claims court, you need to appear and defend yourself with whatever evidence you can gather. If sued in other courts, you need to retain an attorney to defend you because it is a complicated process and the rules are almost impossible to grasp. If you cannot afford an attorney to handle the entire matter for you, then you still need to retain an attorney as a consultant — he will tell you what is going on and what you have to do, and then you will have to do it. If you hire an attorney this way, it will be cheaper but it will be a lot of work and worry for you. If you retain an attorney, there is a chance that he can settle the case with the opposing attorney, which of course would reduce your costs.

If you receive a letter from an attorney

If you receive a letter from an attorney who represents the victim, respond to it. If you ignore it, the next person you will see will be a sheriff with a court subpoena! Be nice to the attorney and his or her staff. Give them your insurance information (homeowners or renters). Answer their questions about insurance — but not about the dog and not about what happened.

Advice given in an actual case

The following is from an exchange of e-mail between Attorney Kenneth Phillips (the author of Dog Bite Law) and a dog owner who was being sued. The dog owner’s message did not make clear whether she was facing a claim or an actual lawsuit; her inquiry was focused on the $1 million claim being made against her. Here is how Attorney Phillips responded:

There is the case, and then there is the claim. Those are different things.

The claim itself can be for $800 trillion. The amount of the claim is meaningless.

The case is different from the claim. Your insurance company performs its own evaluation of the case. This evaluation is performed with an eye toward getting the case settled without having to litigate it with formal court proceedings.

The insurance company usually responds to a claim by making an offer of settlement that is a fraction of what the case is worth. That fraction ranges from 10% to 50%.

After that, the lawyer for the claimant attempts to negotiate a reasonable settlement.

All of the figures that get discussed are within the policy limits in 99% of the cases.

If the case is really worth more than the policy, the insurance company offers to pay the policy limits. The claimant usually accepts the policy limits.

If the claimant does not accept the policy limits, the claimant has to prosecute a civil lawsuit. The insurance company will defend the insured even though the insurance company wanted to pay the policy limit.

One of the things that an insured person “buys” from an insurance company is their agreement to defend the insured from the covered lawsuits.

In most places, the insurance company also has to pay for a private attorney to protect your personal interests. This is because it is essentially unfair, in the view of many courts, for the insurance company to pick one lawyer to defend the company and you, because your interests are not exactly the same at this point.

If there is a judgment for an amount in excess of the policy, the case usually is appealed. If the judgment survives the appeal and still is over the policy limit, the insured has to pay the excess or declare bankruptcy.

So, as you can see, the fact that a claim is being made for an amount that exceeds the policy limit of your policy does not mean you should worry. You have paid your insurance company to take care of this for you, and they most likely will do so.

Just make sure that you get rid of that dog, if you have not done so already. A dog that does this much damage can make you wind up in jail if there is another accident. You can’t get out of that one by declaring bankruptcy. Worse, the victim could be your spouse, your children, or even you.