A good case is one that has three elements: liability on the part of the defendant, insurance coverage, and an injury that deserves significant compensation.
The first issue is whether the law makes anyone legally liable for the incident. If the state where the incident happened has a strict liability dog bite statute, the answer is yes. If there is no such statute, there might be a strict liability ordinance in the city or county where the incident happened, and the answer would be yes. In places where there is neither a strict liability statute nor ordinance, the answer is yes (in almost all states) if the victim can prove one of three things:
- That the dog previously bit another person or acted like it wanted to, and that the dog owner, keeper or harborer knew about it.
- That a third party like a landlord was negligent in some manner, and the negligence caused the incident to happen.
- That a third party violated an animal control law like a leash law, and the violation caused the incident to happen.
The second issue is whether the legally liable person is covered by insurance. Individuals who live in a house that they do not rent are usually covered for dog bites by the homeowners insurance on the house. People who rent are covered by renters insurance, if they have it. Dwellers of mobile homes and condominiums also are covered by insurance, if they have it. Landlords, store owners, and corporations also have insurance that covers dog bites. The significance of insurance is twofold. First, it means that there will be money available to pay the victim. Second, it means that the victim can retain an attorney on a contingency fee basis, also known as a “no recovery, no fee” basis. Attorneys who handle dog bites for the victims usually do not ask for payment until and unless money is recovered; if there is no insurance, however, the victim rarely can retain a lawyer because of the improbability of collecting enough money to adequately compensate both the victim and the attorney. Unless the injuries are insignificant, recovering money for the victim is something that requires the help of a good lawyer. (See Does an adult need a lawyer for a dog bite claim? or, if the victim was a child, Should parents get a lawyer for their injured child?)
The third issue is whether the amount of compensation at stake is great enough to support the effort required to obtain it. The amount of compensation depends on the nature and extent of injury, the extent and impact of the medical treatment, and a host of other factors such as possible scarring, disability, loss of income, emotional injuries, and future costs for scar reduction, counseling, and other things. The only people who can estimate the amount of compensation at stake are attorneys who represent victims, and insurance adjusters. For that reason, it is essential for the victim to consult with a lawyer as to this third issue. Establishing liability and the availability of insurance coverage do not make the effort “worth it” if the eventual recovery probably will not exceed the cost, effort, and emotional strain of pursuing the case.
The issues of liability, insurance coverage, and probable net recovery can be difficult to resolve; indeed, it is rare for the answers to be apparent. Dog bite law provides defenses for dog owners, like provocation, assumption of the risk, and trespass; their insurers can rely on exemptions, exceptions, and policy definitions that sometimes are very controversial. Although it is rare for a dog bite case to go to trial, every claim must be supported by “trial-ready” evidence. Additionally, the victim will have to settle the claims which will be made by his own doctors, the hospital, and his health insurance company (or the Medicaid program that pays his medical costs). Furthermore, a victim’s settlement can have tax consequences especially if it is invested, victims who already receive government benefits can lose them unless the dog bite settlement money is handled a specific way, and almost all injured minors have to make a court appearance when the case is over.
To get justice, therefore, the victim needs an experienced lawyer. Fortunately, attorneys who handle such cases in the USA usually provide a free consultation. There is no downside to discussing the case with someone who has the experience, learning, and desire to help the dog bite victim recover adequate compensation without too much effort, stress, or harm to relationships.